Waiting for Health Care

Posted on May 22, 2012

The following post was featured in Sunday's online edition of The New York Times. The report comes from Emmy Award-winning documentary Peter Nicks whose latest film The Waiting Room goes behind the doors of an American public hospital struggling to care for a community of largely uninsured patients. The film will air next season on PBS's Independent Lens.

 


This Op-Doc video, adapted from my feature-length documentary The Waiting Room,presents a composite day in the life of patients at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. — edited from five months of filming in 2010.The Waiting Room developed from stories my wife, a speech pathologist at Highland Hospital, told me about the struggles and resilience of her patient population. And a few years ago, as the contentious vote for health care reform got louder, it occurred to me that the people who were not participating in the debate were the very people we were fighting over: those stuck in waiting rooms at underfunded public hospitals all over the country.

  

How would the patients in the waiting room at Highland Hospital respond to President George W. Bush’s statement, echoed by many others, that we already have universal health care in this country because, by law, nobody can be turned away from an emergency room for lack of ability to pay? By following the caregivers and patients as they passed through the waiting room, we felt we could shed some light on the challenges of delivering primary health care in an environment designed for emergency medicine. 

What we found was that the uninsured were more likely to be hospitalized for avoidable conditions because there is virtually no continuity of care; no regular doctor to get a detailed medical history and then a follow-up visit to make sure the prescribed treatment is working. And because the wait times are so long — both in the emergency department and to see a doctor in the clinics — simple conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes can escalate to severe life-threatening emergencies like strokes or kidney failure. These true emergencies end up back in the emergency department but at a much higher personal and financial cost. “The Waiting Room” is a story and a symbol of our national community and how our common vulnerability to illness binds us together as humans.

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