December 19, 2013

By Callum Rowe, UC Berkeley Extension’s American Medical Student Association

The Emergency Department (ED) of Alameda County’s Highland Hospital is regarded as a world-class community facility, treating hundreds of patients every day, many of whom are underinsured or have no insurance. On November 24th, SF Bay Area PSR and UC Berkeley Extension’s American Medical Student Association (AMSA) chapter hosted a screening of “The Waiting Room,” a documentary following Highland staff during a 24-hour period.

As a portrait of ‘a day in the life,’ “The Waiting Room” follows a number of patients and their families during some of the most trying and distressing times in their lives, illuminating where poverty and health issues intersect in devastating ways.

Following the screening, a panel of Highland staff gave further dimension to the stories told in the film. Shareen Cronin, MSN, RN, Director of Trauma and Emergency Services; Kathryn Fenton, BSN, RN, ED nurse; Hung-Wen Sun, MPA, ED Physician Assistant; and Dan Schnorr, MD, 3rd year EM resident, all contributed their varied perspectives on the trials and triumphs of working in the Highland Emergency Department.

The audience asked poignant questions about the nature of the work at the hospital. Panel members expressed their passion for community health and the importance of working in a capacity to help vulnerable members of our society. Their inspirational message was juxtaposed against the stark reality that not every patient can be helped, and the frustration of seeing the same patients repeatedly in the ED for chronic illnesses. They talked about how patients often have to stay overnight in the hospital, not for medical reasons, but because the staff need to find a safe place to which to release the patient before discharge.

Panelists explained the impacts of the Affordable Care Act and the sobering reality that ensuring that someone has health insurance does not necessarily mean guaranteeing optimal health care. Ms. Cronin indicated that Highland will most likely struggle more over the next few years, as community Emergency Departments are hit with the influx of newly insured patients who do not have proper access to primary care.

Ultimately, attendees were left with the resonance of the unified message of the panelists, that Highland hospital is a special place and that they feel at home there. Highland is the social safety for all, regardless of class, race, gender, immigration or insurance status.

AMSA was delighted to partner with SF Bay Area PSR to sponsor this event. The education of good doctors begins with a solid understanding of the community in which they live. By hearing from the voices of those who are doing this work, we are reminded that being an effective healer goes beyond being a proficient clinician, and comes from being an engaged and compassionate human being who is aware of all the upstream issues that impact the health of our patients and communities.