doctor waiting room

It’s no secret that patients sometimes get upset, even if you provide outstanding care. Studies suggest that a leading source of patient dissatisfaction has nothing to do with the actual care that you provide. It’s your waiting room design.

There’s a good chance that your practice is underutilizing your waiting room and missing an opportunity to drastically improve the patient experience. And for those of you who are not convinced that you should be focusing on the patient experience, check out our article on the lifetime value of a patient. Retaining happy patients is one of the keys to the long-term growth of medical practices and hospitals.

Luckily, it’s comparatively easy to improve your waiting room design with these actionable reception area ideas. Waiting rooms don’t need to be dreary, cramped and unwelcoming. A few simple changes to your waiting room design can transform the space into an area where patients can kick back and pass the time before their appointment. With a bit of work, you can turn your waiting area into a powerful healthcare marketing strategy. Here’s how:

Starter Tips

Let’s start with the easy stuff. If you don’t currently have the time or budget to completely reinvent your waiting room design, there are a few small things you can do to make the area a more pleasant place for patients that are quick and easy.

1) Provide Snacks and Refreshments

Waiting Room Snack Bar

Just as Blooming Smiles Dental Studio in Bloomingdale, Indiana has done in the example above, you should consider offering some coffee and snacks. A small table with a box of pastries, tea, and coffee are all it takes to make the wait room more bearable. Consider also placing a mini-fridge stocked with some bottled water and seltzer. When your patients arrive stressed, a cup of coffee can make the world seem like a brighter, better place. And snacking on a pastry or granola bar can make the time spent waiting seem a bit more pleasant and leisurely.

2) Make the Decor Interesting

Creative Waiting Room Decor

Pictured Above: Mount Sinai’s male urology department redesigned their waiting area to resemble a man cave. They elected to feature local sports memorabilia, flat screen TVs, and leather seating. In addition to dazzling patients, they generated a great deal of press in their community. 

You can count on a lot of patients to browse their smartphones to stay entertained. But for those without phones (or phones with dead batteries), it’s worthwhile to make your decor interesting. Paint murals or mazes on the walls, provide a small aquarium, or hang vivid framed cityscapes that patients can get lost looking at. Combined with a little soft instrumental music, interesting decor can make a quiet wait more passively entertaining.

Help Your Patients Predict Wait Times

One of the most obvious source of patient dissatisfaction is their wait time. I know this doesn’t have much to do with the waiting room design itself, but there are several ways you can help patients cope with longer wait times without actually shortening the amount of time.

For most practices, shortening wait times is a long-term goal that involves streamlining the process and optimizing the schedule. But you can make wait times much easier for your patients to handle with a few changes to the waiting room routine.

3) Accurately Estimate Delays

First, give your patients an accurate and up-to-date estimate of delays. Though it may not seem that way, most patients work hard to arrive on time for their scheduled appointments and they get agitated when they have to wait past the time on their schedule. However, you won’t get angry patients demanding to know how long they must wait if you tell them ahead of time.

patient wait times

Some practices post the wait time on a digital board above the reception desk, and some even provide it through a patient-portal mobile app. If that’s too technical for you, you can simply provide an estimate of the wait time when they check in. However you do it, letting patients know their wait-time earlier rather than later can make it easier for them to handle it.

4) Provide a Mobile Reminder so Patients can Roam

Speaking of popping out, one great way to improve your waiting room experience is to minimize the time patients must spend in the actual waiting room. Rather than asking patients to be available when you know they won’t be called on for 30+ minutes, give them a mobile way to stay in touch – particularly if you’re in a city with nearby shops. Use HIPAA compliant SMS alerts, a mobile app, or even a restaurant buzzing coaster to ring your patients when they’re 10 minutes from being called on.

This way, patients can walk around the block, or browse nearby shops instead of getting twitchy and uncomfortable in your waiting room. West County Health Centers has begun handing out restaurant pagers to patients to allow them to roam during their appointment wait times.

Seating Arrangements

Next, let’s take a look at seating arrangements. As an occasional-patient yourself, you know that the way receptionist seating is arranged in a waiting room can make a real difference for how comfortable waiting patients will be. Not just physically, but socially.

5) Strategic Personal Space

Arrange your chairs and couches to account for personal space. A row of single armed chairs crammed as close to each other as possible is nobody’s idea of a comfortable waiting area. No one wants to sit elbow-to-elbow with a stranger and it’s rarely necessary. Providing only couches can be just as awkward.

Healthcare Waiting Room Seating

The Cleveland Clinic also found that people generally dislike sitting back-to-back, as their heads may accidentally touch.

Instead, arrange your seating to account for personal space. Make clusters of seats for families or couples and ensure that singular seats have enough room from others to respect each patient’s personal space. This way, your seating is much more likely to be maximally used without the traditional “awkward chair” left between one stranger and another.

6) Loveseats, Single Chairs, and Couches

The Stamford Hospital Waiting Room Design

Pictured Above: Stamford Hospital created a comfortable and inviting waiting area environment for their patients by placing a few loveseats and couches in the hospital waiting room. A bit more comforable than traditional chairs, the Stamford Hospital waiting room is well ahead of the curve. 

Use a mixture of loveseats (seats for two), single chairs, and three-person couches. Or cut the couches out entirely. Loveseats are very effective in waiting rooms because they can house a couple, a small family, a large person, or a single patient all with adequate comfort. Single chairs are best when set away from other chairs or in pairs to provide for personal space. Couches are only welcoming for couples and families; everyone else will feel either awkward or selfish sitting on a couch.

So think carefully about the size of the waiting area furniture you choose and how you arrange it. 

7) Comfortable Upholstery

Finally, think a little about your upholstery. No one likes plastic or pleather that sticks to the skin when one has been sitting for a long time. And the rough fuzzy upholstery that feels like cheap carpet is equally unwelcome. For practices that need washable chairs, consider removable and washable chair covers rather than plastic chairs. Favor fabric that breathes easily, does not trap heat, and does not stick to the body after sitting for more than thirty minutes.

Keeping Waiting Patients Entertained

Finally, there is the matter of patient entertainment. Magazines are the traditional answer, but magazines hold little interest for modern patients. Instead, your patients need something a little more high-tech or interactive to help pass the time.

8) High-Speed Patient Wifi

Waiting room wifi

Most of your patients will have smartphones, tablets, or laptops that go with them everywhere. These are great for personal entertainment and the smartest thing your medical office can do is provide free high-speed wifi for patients. When patients can connect to the internet without spending their data plans, then they can get a little work done or just watch funny YouTube videos with headphones until the doctor is ready.

9) Tethered iPads

Several medical offices have started offering iPads to patients to help them pass the time, complete with protective cases and often connected to the chairs with a tether. For the right patient demographic, tethered iPads with a few pre-downloaded games and apps are a fantastic modern alternative to the pile of magazines.

10) Children’s Play Area with Parent Seating

Children Play Area

Whether or not you specialize in pediatrics, a kid’s play area is always a good idea. A puzzle table, a shelf of books and board games, or an old game console that plays Sonic and Mario are all excellent additions to a section of the waiting room where younger children can play. Put down a special colorful rug to designate the space and then arrange a few chairs or couches around the children’s area for parents to comfortably sit and watch their kids.

11) Puzzle Books and Pencils

For patients who don’t want to browse the web or whose phones are dead, consider a little manual entertainment. Instead of (or in addition to) your pile of old magazines, consider throwing in a stack of puzzle books. Crosswords, sudoku, mazes, and other activities are fun for all age groups, from 10-year-olds to centennials. Patients who really need something to do can solve a few puzzles and the time will fly by.

Just be sure to replace the puzzle books from time to time so there are always new puzzles to do.

12) Aquariums and Artistic Digital Displays

Aquarium in Waiting Room

Finally, don’t neglect the decor. For patients who have just arrived, and especially those enjoying a short waiting time, the decor itself can serve as entertainment. Use a dynamic interior design to make the waiting room itself an interesting thing to look at. Aquariums are a classic form of passive entertainment, but you can also feature interesting digital displays like ocean scenes or or live zoo feeds.

As an example, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota features glass sculptures and other delightful works of art for the enjoyment of visiting and waiting patients.

Your Waiting Room Design Matters

A doctor’s office waiting room can affect a patient’s first impression. Keeping your patients comfortable and entertained during a long wait takes more than a row of plasticky chairs and a television playing the news. With these highly actionable waiting room design tips and tricks, you can transform your waiting room experience from a drag into a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. By providing a comfortable and considerate seating, an interesting environment, and plenty of quiet entertainment, your patients will soon be walking into their appointments with a smile.

For more detailed tips on making your healthcare practice more appealing to patients from marketing to patient experience, contact us today!

Andrew Epprecht Twitter Linkedin

Written by Andrew Epprecht

As the Founder and CEO of Phase 5 Analytics, Andrew leads a team of healthcare marketers and consultants. He's been featured in publications like Forbes and Search Engine Watch. An entrepreneur at heart, Andrew started his first business in high school. While attending Duke University, he further developed his knowledge of online marketing and advertising. Today, Andrew uses these skills to help forward-thinking healthcare organizations attract new patients online.

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