At a time when practices face declining reimbursements, heavy administrative burdens and other pressing demands, it’s easy to discount the importance of the waiting room. The chairs are decently comfortable so you’re all set, right?
Not so fast, experts say. Your waiting room is the first thing patients see when they walk through the door of your practice and those first impressions indelibly shape their perceptions of their waiting time, the care they receive and their overall visit—for better or worse.
So what should practices do to make their waiting rooms more inviting, calming spaces? I spoke with Rosalyn Cama, FASID, EDAC, author of the book, Evidence-Based Healthcare Design, and president of healthcare design firm Cama, Inc., to find out.
Maureen: Rosalyn, there’s so much attention being paid to patient satisfaction, especially because it’s now a factor affecting physician reimbursement. Are medical practices beginning to look more closely at improving the waiting room as a way to enhance the patient experience?
Rosalyn: I don’t think practices know the right questions to ask yet, but they’re moving in the right direction. When I explain how anti-stress and anti-anxiety environments improve patient satisfaction, they do get it, but I wouldn’t say most understand the importance of those spaces.
Maureen: Why is the waiting room so important?
Rosalyn: The hospitality industry has done a great job of explaining that the first impression sets the stage. You either get it right in the first sixty seconds after a person walks in your door or you miss that opportunity. There’s a great study from researchers at Cornell University that found that if the healthcare environment looks well cared for and organized, there is an automatic perception that the quality of care is equally good.
If a patient walks into a practice and sees an old tube television, clutter and worn chairs, they might think, “Maybe the equipment here is old, too.”
Maureen: What are some of the first things practices should do to improve their waiting room?
Rosalyn: A window and good natural light is worth more than anything. Sun is amazingly therapeutic and it’s really important that patients get a sense of what time of day it is. If you don’t have windows, though, you can use cycled LED lighting to mimic natural light that corresponds with the different times of day.
A well-organized, thoughtful space is also important. Make sure there is room for walkers, a play area if your practice sees children, and smaller groups of chairs so families can sit together.
Visual clutter is important, too. Keep the notices on the wall to a minimum and make sure staff keep their desks organized.
Maureen: Speaking of walls, what about art?
Rosalyn: Art is very important. Our firm tends to work with local artists; you can easily find good ones by contacting the local arts council. Views of nature—particularly recognizable, local scenes—are good since they can trigger memories and those memories help take patients out of the moment.
Maureen: Should practices leave out reading materials?
Rosalyn: I recently walked into a surgical waiting area where 75% of people were on smart devices, but the ones who weren’t didn’t know what to do with themselves. Most people use smartphones and iPads these days, but you need to anticipate that not everyone will. It’s still good to have some magazines and educational materials available.
Maureen: Any other guidance for practices?
Rosalyn: Hotels tend to spruce themselves up every five years, while hospitals and physician practices tend to do so every 15 to 20 years. In that time, someone is going to spill something and a vacuum is going to scuff the furniture. Take the time to sit in your waiting room and really look around. Think about what you need and make sure you invest in long-wearing materials. You can also ask patients to weigh in with their feedback.