Turn your waiting room into an oasis

Healthy plants, internet access and good reading material will make patients’ complaints melt away

By Abe Konigsberg

For most practices in Canada, overstuffed waiting rooms are an unavoidable, often unpleasant fact of life. But a three-physician group in Montreal decided to make lemonade out of life’s lemons and turn their waiting room into a pleasant, educational space, with great reading material, great toys and even computers.

“A lot of colleagues warned us having a few PCs in the waiting room would be a nightmare, with patients downloading porn or bugging the front desk staff when something didn’t work,” recalls one of the practice’s FPs. “But it’s been an utter delight. We installed Kiosk software to prevent inappropriate browsing and tampering with the computers.” This reduced glitches and fears of patients wrestling over the computer mouse also proved to be unfounded. Their head receptionist says fewer patients complain about waiting now that they can check their email during their stay.

A waiting room stay can truly set the mood for a consultation — and a patient can prejudge you solely based on the state of your waiting area. A dingy room with flickering fluorescent lighting and nothing to read but a stack of filthy, dog-eared magazines dating back to the Mulroney era might have folks wondering if you’re that behind the times in your medical knowledge.

The first thing you should consider when giving your waiting room the once-over is its size and where it’s situated. If you’re renovating or building a new one, try to place it an area with a window that lets in plenty of natural light. This helps create a serene atmosphere, and really expands your options as to what sort of plants you can place in the room (be sure to feed them — dead plants are a real downer!). On the other hand, make sure the area respects patient privacy and doesn’t have so many windows that it feels like a storefront. This is particularly important if your practice is on the ground floor.

Your waiting room should be generously sized. Standing-room only is an absolute no-no. But just seating everyone isn’t your only concern; it’s also nice to offer enough space so that no patient needs to sit beside someone they suspect may be contagious. Remember that even if your appointment scheduling isn’t too out of whack, it’s hard to predict how many patients will bring a companion.

The arrangement of the seats themselves can help make the space homey and comfortable. Long rows of seats conjure up a dreaded bus station vibe. Individual chairs are much better than sofas or benches. Keep the chairs in small groups of perhaps four, and make sure there’s some seating appropriate for bigger patients, and comfortable spots for wheelchair-bound patients to park.

Some physicians favour televisions in their waiting rooms. But the boob tube often does more harm than good for a practice’s ambience. For one thing, it quite effectively broadcasts the fact that patients are likely going to be in for a long delay before they see you. And then you have to consider that what constitutes a comfortable listening volume for hard-of-hearing patients is blaring din for others. Choosing suitable viewing material is similarly problematic. Mrs Henderson might want to watch Oprah, while a young dad might demand Teletubbies for his sick tot. Even leaving the set tuned to a safe bet like Newsworld will force patients to sit through too many annoying commercials.

Music isn’t as much of a minefield as television, but you still have to find something everyone can enjoy — or at least tolerate. The typical reflex is to pick something “inoffensive” like muzak, light rock or jazz — but be aware that many patients won’t enjoy this music and they might think it reflects your taste. If you don’t want your patients to think you’re Zamfir’s biggest fan, maybe your waiting room would be better off tuneless.

While it’s not always obvious, the waiting room’s floor covering also affects the sonic environment. Tiled or hardwood floors can be quite beautiful and are definitely easier to keep clean, but carpet has the clear edge when it comes to noise. The constant clip-clop of staffers scurrying around the practice on a hard floor (raising patients’ hopes that their number’s finally up) would be barely audible on a carpeted floor. But be aware of the fact that carpet is much more of a commitment, and without regular professional cleanings it can look pretty ratty in just a few months.

While placing a computer or two in the waiting room isn’t a solution for every doctor, it isn’t as fraught with danger as you might expect. Even a relatively old, very inexpensive computer will be fine for basic web browsing. It’s almost essential, however, that you purchase Kiosk software to prevent people from messing things up — unintentionally or not — or looking at offensive websites. There are many choices out there, such as KioWare for Windows ($135US www.kioware.com) or wKiosk for Mac ($69 www.app4mac.com), to keep your practice’s internet terminals up and running and free of inappropriate material. However it will require some computer know-how and time to set up this software, so it’s not recommended you go there unless you or someone else in the office knows at least the basics.

Space permitting, it’s a very good idea to designate an area for quiet play for children. The toys you select should be tough, safe, easy to clean and quiet. Avoid anything that squeaks, rings or buzzes. Soft blocks and puzzles are a great choice. Many toy stores even have a section for items recommended for waiting rooms. It’s also very comforting to have a selection of children’s books, particularly some with medical themes such as Dr Critter by Mercer Mayer.

For grown-up reading material, it’s a good idea to subscribe to a nice variety of publications. Choose carefully, though, as this will tell your patients a great deal about you. At the same time, if all you have is high-brow mags like Harper’s or The Atlantic you might annoy patients who want something lighter like People. Also take care to have a good selection of men’s and women’s magazines — avoiding of course ‘lad magazines’ that could offend some patients. If you don’t want to spend a lot on subscriptions, make sure you get at least one publication with a broad appeal such as Maclean’s or Reader’s Digest. Assign someone the task of sorting the reading material and throwing outdated issues in the recycling bin.

No amount of entertainment and ingenious design can make up for a sour-looking staff. You might want to instruct your receptionist to warmly greet each patient and ask for their name as soon as they walk through the door. This will go a long way towards making a patient feel like an honoured guest — not another sardine to pack in the waiting room.
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