Solo Practice -- My Waiting Room

#1 Dinosaur, MD


January 12, 2009

I once heard someone refer to consultants as people you pay to tell you what you already know. This is certainly true when it comes to designing a waiting room for a solo medical office. I designed my waiting room all by myself. In fact, I recently redecorated it. I didn't buy much new furniture; just rearranged what I had and added a few new pieces. All it really needed was a little updating. After 19 years it is still serving my needs -- and those of my patients -- beautifully.

Everyone knows that people don't like to sit next to strangers, so you're supposed to furnish your waiting room with individual chairs instead of sofas and loveseats. Those chairs are all supposed to have arms, so that patients with arthritis, the elderly, and others who have trouble rising from chairs can get up more easily. The problem is that most waiting rooms end up looking like bus stations -- beautifully upholstered bus stations. However, when all that greet you are rows and rows of single chairs -- all with arms -- it's hard to find a spot to set a baby carrier down or to snuggle with a sick child. Strangers may not want to sit together, but people in the same family often do. And in a Family Practice office, patients are frequently accompanied by family members. We are also supposed to consider the needs of patients who are morbidly obese. Because these patients may not fit into a single chair, especially if it had arms on both sides, they would be embarrassed and inconvenienced if that were the only seating option.

This is why in addition to 6 single chairs with arms for all those patients who are elderly or have arthritis, my waiting room also contains 2 loveseats. They are perfect for young couples, sick toddlers who want to snuggle on mom's lap, and the morbidly obese. The furniture is heavy and sturdy but extremely comfortable. All the upholstery is washable. Patients love it. In fact, the major complaint I get when I call people back to the examination room for their appointment "too soon" is that they didn't want to leave the waiting room (Figure 1).

Chairs and loveseats.

Patient education is supposed to be an important part of the medical encounter, so the usual approach is to begin as soon as possible, the moment the patient hits the waiting room. Design consultants often advise doctors to fill the waiting room with educational materials, including brochures, booklets, and posters. The latest technological suggestion includes flat screen televisions running medically educational programming for patients to watch while they wait. This may seem to be an attractive concept if one thinks of patients as busy people who can't stand the idea of a single moment of idleness, and who are constantly on the go. I, however, don't believe multitasking is really the sort of thing patients are thinking about when they come to see me.

Most of the time, patients have a lot on their minds. They don't feel well or they're worried -- often both. They're trying to remember everything they can about their illness so they can tell me what I need to know to help them, but they may also be afraid of what I'm going to find when I examine them or what I'm going to tell them about a diagnosis. The last thing they need is a television blaring health information at them or stacks of brochures, most of which trumpet in large letters across the top, "ASK YOUR DOCTOR!"

This is why I have intentionally limited the patient education material displayed in my waiting room (Figure 2).

Patient education materials, including a seasonal reminder about flu shots.

Like many offices that see kids, my waiting room wouldn't be complete without a special play area set aside for children. Toys are the best way to distract the younger set while they are waiting to be seen or accompanying other family members to their appointments. In my office, children have their own table and stools where they can accomplish the very important tasks of cooking soup to share with their mother and me, or counting beads on the abacus, or practicing their hand-eye coordination with the bead-mobile. The roads on the map-rug are just the right size to get down and roll the miniature cars from the roundabout to the beach (Figure 3).

The children's corner.

I have read many consultants' recommendations for waiting room design. All seem to center around keeping patients busy, presumably so they don't notice how long I'm keeping them waiting. I can guarantee that whenever I have been a patient, I know exactly how long I've been waiting in that room, no matter how many educational brochures are there for my reading pleasure or how relevant the doctor thinks the medical infomercial on the television is to my condition (not very most of the time.) Besides, I consider one of the most important parts of my job to run on time, primarily so that my patients do not spend very much time waiting for me.

My goal was to design a space where patients could relax -- to allow them to collect their thoughts before coming in to see me and calm their nerves before having to confront whatever awaits them in their upcoming medical encounter. Rather than a blaring television or annoying generic music, I purchased an inexpensive noise machine that alternates between softly chirping birds and a summer night of crickets. I avoid the waterfall and rainstorm settings to avoid stimulating excessive trips to the restrooms. The room is easy on the eyes and the ears.

Peace and quiet are surprisingly hard to find in this day and age. I'm proud that my waiting room is a space of calm and comfort for my patients, where I can begin to care for them before they even meet me or set foot in my examination room.


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