“The Waiting Room:” Ensuring Patients’ Voices Are Heard (and What Medical Students Can Learn from Them)

By Sarah Sonies

In 2012, producer/director Peter Nicks filmed 24 hours at Highland Hospital in Oakland for the documentary, “The Waiting Room.” Begun as a storytelling project to capture the human side of health care, Nicks and his team focused on the hospital waiting room. They asked the question, “What are you waiting for?” and received poignant vignettes from patients, which they categorized and posted on the web. That storytelling project then led to “The Waiting Room,” which won Best Documentary at the 2013 Independent Spirit Awards and was shortlisted for a 2013 Oscar nomination. Below is an excerpt from an interview with Nicks.

What inspired you to make a documentary like “The Waiting Room?”

petenicksimdbNicks: We wanted to create different projects dissecting national issues, like health care, using Oakland as the stage. Health care has become such a political punching bag; storytelling is vital to reach across ideological lines.  We have two distinct projects, the storytelling project and the film. The storytelling project really serves as the engagement campaign.

“The Waiting Room” is the first in a series of films. The core of the film is the human relationship between patients and caregivers. One reason we took the stylistic approach that we did was to emphasize the core humanity of our health care system. We wanted to remind people that interactions between physicians and patients are a profoundly important part of our health care system, but they’re not talked about enough and aren’t directly a part of medical education.

The waiting room at Highland is really a reflection of America in many ways. Highland could have been any hospital waiting room and it transmitted that message in a very human way. The film provides a way for people to talk about this information: We are all connected on this journey, whether we have insurance or not.

This film resonated the way that it did because of how it focuses on building empathy. The story itself becomes a key symbol for how we construct how the health system of the future. It should be part of a medical education curriculum to teach students how to work with the patients they will face.


What are your future goals for the storytelling project?

Nicks: Currently, the project website is just content. There is no strong curriculum to guide the lessons. What we are hoping for in the future is to build a curriculum around the film, possibly using the storytelling platform as a foundation, and to work with medical schools to deliver it.

Narrative medicine is a great way to teach empathy and encourage expression in health care, but we need to direct the curriculum into specific focus areas under the empathy umbrella. We are training a new generation of doctors in this new system. We have an opportunity to examine how we provide care in this moment of patient interaction. The stories of doctors understanding their patients are large pieces of the puzzle that are incredibly important for everyone. We are not pushing for a big curriculum shift, but an opportunity for students to learn to think differently.

How can medical students utilize the film to engender conversation among their peers?

Nicks: We have a need for data, but the story behind the data is also incredibly important for doctors to begin to contextualize the larger issues and their problems that they are trying to address. You could look at the storytelling as a form of collecting data and telling stories across the care system, whether it’s peer-to-peer or medical student-to-patient. Engaging patients with that listening and exchanging of stories can lead to all sorts of deeper insights

Students can also use the shorter storytelling platform to connect their own insights and peer-to-peer innovations. We currently have a partnership with the medical school at the Mayo Clinic and its Center for Innovation where we are using the film in a block curriculum. The students watch the film, then pick a part that was significant to them and use that as a jumping-off point for discussion.

How do you think this film can make an impact on patient engagement?

Nicks: The film looks at how patients are communicating with each other and how their doctors are communicating with them. The role of the patient in care delivery is very much a focus right now. Our goal with “The Waiting Room” project is bring patient voices into this conversation in a more vocal manner.

We are trying to reclaim the dignity in our health care system and simultaneously define our health care values as a country. The story is at the center of how you communicate that humanity.

To learn more about “The Waiting Room” storytelling project and view accounts from patients across the nation, please visit the project website here.