The Waiting Room


Have you spent hours waiting in an emergency room at a hospital in Canada? I can honestly say that I have not. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but when I fell off the monkey bars at age 6 and broke my arm, I was in and out of Foothills Medical Centre’s emergency room and back home with with my arm in a cast within a couple of hours.

Several years later, my coordination skills abandoned me yet again when I went flying into the boards in the arena where I used to figure skate, and sliced open my arm. My parents had dropped me off for my skating lessons earlier that morning, so unfortunately for my friend’s Dad, he had to drive me to the emergency room. He called my mom on the way to the hospital to tell her what happened and she promised she would be there as fast as she could drive back across the city.

45 minutes later she arrived, just as the doctor thread one last stitch across the gash in my arm. I was so happy to see her, but of course as soon as she walked in, I burst into tears all over again. A few painkillers and popsicles later and we were on our way — without paying so much as a cent. 

How patients pay for medical services is the fundamental difference between Canada’s publicly-funded Medicare system and America’s mostly private healthcare system. According to the Government of Canada’s website, residents of Canada who visit a hospital are prepaid for basic medical services like X-rays, blood tests, disease screenings, drugs, and treatment of injuries. However, people who live in the United States and don’t have any health insurance coverage are responsible for paying their hospital bill on their own.

Most private health insurance coverage in the United States is provided through an employer, and so for people who are unemployed, underemployed, sick, disabled, and/or impoverished, obtaining adequate health insurance coverage is a real challenge. As a result, 48.6 million people in America had no health insurance coverage in 2011.

The Waiting Room is a documentary about the healthcare system in the United States and follows the lives of people waiting in the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California over the course of 24 hours. I watched the documentary on Jan. 26 at Cinematheque theatre in Winnipeg. The film saddened, moved, and inspired me, all at the same time.

The majority of the uninsured people who appear in the film are experiencing hardships like a recent job loss and financial trouble, in addition to their health problems. One man describes how he has worked laying carpet for over twenty years, but was recently forced to take a salary cut because his employer discovered he could hire foreign workers for less money. As this man’s story unfolds we learn he has been struggling to make his mortgage payments and has come to Highland Hospital in a desperate attempt to find relief from back pain caused by bone spurs, even though he’s not sure how he will pay his medical bill afterwards. His story is deeply disturbing and not uncommon in the U.S., where millions of people cannot afford healthcare.

Following the film, a panel of medical experts comprised of Joel Kettner, an urgent care and emergency physician, Anne Durcan, a family physician, Robert Chernomas, a Professor of Economics at the University of Manitoba, and Arthur Schafer, Director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba discussed the similarities and differences between the healthcare systems in Canada and the U.S. The general consensus among the panel was that while Canada’s current system is superior to the healthcare system in the U.S. in terms of providing a higher quality of care and people’s ability to afford healthcare, if Canada continues voting in a Conservative Government our healthcare system could start to look more like the system in the United States. 

Another interesting point raised by the panel was how some people in Canada don’t feel welcome, comfortable, or respected when accessing the medical system, and they often don’t bother. Whether it’s because of language barriers, cultural differences, or colonization, the medical system is structured in a way that excludes Aboriginals, immigrants, and visible minorities from accessing the system. Increasing inclusion of these groups through special programming, education, and discussion was recommended by the panel. 

Overall, I think The Waiting Room is a successful documentary because it is objective and informative. From a technical standpoint, I think the audio and picture quality looked professional and the editing was smooth and interesting. I also thought the storytelling was very compelling. Despite the many obstacles people in the film face, the director, Peter Nicks manages to tell a story about hope by also showcasing beautiful moments shared between family members, strangers, and between the patients and staff at Highland Hospital. The film examines an important and complicated topic while peeking into the lives of real people, adding a human element and lighter touch to a subject that would otherwise be simply bleak.

Check out The Waiting Room trailer below. I would really encourage you all to see the film and please feel free to share your comments on my blog.


Government of Canada:

United States Census Bureau:


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