The waiting room is a patient's first impression of your practice, and every little thing can affect their perception of care quality, their mood, and their well-being. On physician rating websites, patients tend to comment more on wait times and the waiting area than on the physician's skills. Being made to wait too long for an appointment can make a patient feel anxious or even insulted, as if their time is not valuable or respected. Not being greeted by a receptionist — or, on the flip side, being greeted brusquely — can also impact the patient's mood.
According to the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), the messages the waiting area conveys can be either direct or subliminal. A messy reception desk, for example, may inadvertently communicate that your practice does not pay attention to collections and billing, while displaying multiple payment and cancellation policies may come off as impersonal. Similarly, too much promotional material from pharmaceutical companies may make the patient feel like they are being bombarded by ads.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to foster a positive experience in your waiting room:
- Lighting. Using different lighting sources helps improve the overall atmosphere. While a too-bright room will not be very comfortable or soothing, natural lighting improves patients' moods. It also reinforces normal circadian rhythms, because not being exposed to a full spectrum of daylight disrupts sleep, mood, and the "food clock," according to the AOA. If the waiting room is in a windowless area, LED lighting is a cost-effective alternative. Unlike fluorescent lights, LED lights do not flicker or hum, reducing patient disruption.
- Artwork. Artwork helps improve the waiting area's look and feel, especially if the view from any windows is less than attractive. Nature scenes and those that reflect the region may be especially soothing.
- Furniture. Dingy or worn-out furniture conveys the message that cleanliness is not a priority. And although having many chairs allows you to accommodate more people, too much seating makes it easy for patients to stack up, leading to longer wait times and dissatisfaction. If possible, give people space to spread out.
- Reading material. Instead of providing old copies of magazines, consider rotating through some coffee table books every few months, preferably seasonally. Set out books about gardening and other outdoor activities in the spring and summer, then try travel books in the wintertime, when patients are likely to be looking to escape to warmer climes. It's also worthwhile to consider stocking a small bookcase with a variety of reading material so there is something for everyone.
- Internet access and technology. Free Wi-Fi is a given these days, but according to Healthcare Design Magazine, some practices go beyond the basics and provide patients with even more ways to stay connected. Self-check-in kiosks and tablets that provide access to health care information, for example, are becoming more commonplace. Your practice may also be able to skip the television; a study originally published in Clinic Design: Enhancing the Patient Experience Through Informed Design found that only 41 percent of survey respondents wanted to watch TV while sitting in a waiting room. Ninety-five percent preferred to read instead, and 57 percent preferred to use their mobile phones.
- Layout. Choosing different layouts to accommodate various patients may help improve the waiting room atmosphere. Consider a kid-friendly area for patients with children or a nook for professionals who want to get some work done while they wait.
Beyond the aesthetics and amenities your waiting area offers, staff should also do their part to increase patient comfort. Patients should be greeted warmly when they enter the reception area, and you should appoint someone to inform patients how long they can expect to wait to help reduce the number of complaints. Some practices use a color-coded board to indicate if a physician is on time or running late. These extra considerations will ensure that the patient's first impression of your practice is a positive one and that they will want to return for future visits.