There’s an architectural adage that goes “form follows function.”
This saying means that the shape and appearance of a thing (whether it’s an office, a house, a device, or any product) should derive from its purpose. If the thing’s composition does not support its purpose, it will never be truly effective.
Retail stores have known this for years. The physical layout of a space can influence your mood, raise your opinion of the establishment, and even entice you to spend more money.
In healthcare, your office layout won’t convenience your patients to spend more, but design can be used to improve your business’ productivity. The faster you can treat patients (without sacrificing quality), the more you can schedule, and the more you can bill in a day.
The first step is to identify where your office design is causing problems. Judy Capko, management consultant and author of Secrets of the Best Run Practices tells Medical Economics that businesses need to take an honest look at themselves:
“In an ideal world, the patient flow process should be predictable. This can be accomplished when a practice reflects on its problems in an honest way and seeks solutions to those problems, rather than yielding to the temptation to make excuses and expect patients to just cope with delays.”
Countless medical practices and healthcare offices across the country use ineffective office designs because “that’s what we’ve always done” or “changing won’t make much of a difference.”
The former excuse is just silly. Healthcare is a business. Improving and optimizing your process is part of business. If a business isn’t growing, it’s dying.
Healthcare is a business. Improving and optimizing your process is part of business.
The latter excuse is plain wrong. If you could squeeze another 15-minute appointment into each day and bill the patient’s insurance $200 (which is a conservative number), you could add nearly $50,000 to your yearly revenue. That’s a pretty big difference!
We’ve talked about optimizing your practice before. You can use online intake forms, automate certain tasks, store records electronically, and improve the overall patient flow. You can also improve the efficiency of your office by making these design changes.
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Single direction traffic flow
When it comes to setting up your healthcare office, total space is less important than how the space is used or what it looks like. “Most people, including physicians and dentists, think of the image and aesthetics of their office first,” says interior designer Jessica Donnelly. Aesthetics are important, “but what people often don’t realize is the intrinsic value of flow and how it impacts overhead.”
In an ideal healthcare office, traffic should flow in a loop – starting and ending in the reception area so the patient never retraces his or her steps. Patients are escorted down one side of the loop and into an exam room. When the exam is complete, they continue down the same path until they are back at the waiting area.
This sample ophthalmology office uses the perfect single-direction layout. Patients enter and wait at the top of the diagram. Traffic flows along the loop in the same direction, ending back at reception. Exam rooms line the perimeter of the loop. Offices and open work stations fill the center.
The system creates physical efficiency in a few ways:
- Patients are never lost or confused where to go.
- Traffic jams are eliminated.
- Patients do not stop to chat with one another.
- Healthcare providers are unlikely to encounter a patient outside of an exam room.
If your office is busy, it helps to have two people at reception. One’s job is to intake and process patients. The other’s job is to handle outgoing patients; scheduling next appointments and completing the billing process. Both should answer phone calls for new appointments and process appointments set online.
The pod design
The pod design is a system of managing patient flow in medical offices with three or more healthcare providers. In this system, three or four exam rooms are designated to a single healthcare provider. The provider’s patients are staged in the exam rooms in a round robin pattern.
Nurses or assistants place new patients in the exam rooms before the provider has finished with the previous patients. This system means the healthcare provider (as the highest paid person in the business) is never idle while other pieces of the process are shuffled around. It also gives nurses or assistant the opportunity to perform routine care services (like vaccinations, weighing, measuring, etc.) before the healthcare provider visits.
This system improves patient wait time moderately, but significantly reduces the perception of wait time. Patients feel like they are seen sooner, even when the total time of their visit remains the same.
You don’t have to do heavy construction in order to optimize the efficiency of your office. In many cases, a simple change can create a drastic change in your practice.
Non-load bearing walls can be added or removed to change the layout of your practice. Depending on the length of the wall, you may only require a change that costs a few hundred dollars (for framing, drywall and paint).
For instance, many practices have waiting rooms that are far too large. Do you need ten chairs if only three are fill at any given time? Perhaps that space can be better used for other purposes. Does your receptionist need a massive desk, or would a smaller piece of furniture be suitable?
Many physicians and healthcare providers like to visit their office in between visits to document their previous appointment or gather information for the next. These private spaces are often positioned away from the treatment area. Truthfully, if you’re using electronic medical records properly, private offices aren’t necessary.
You can drastically improve efficiency by creating a central workstation for healthcare providers. They can access records here without leaving the area and the office space can be used for more patient exam rooms.
In this example, a central nurses station houses equipment, supplies, and computers for information. Nurses never have to leave the treatment floor.
Finding space for central workstations is easier than you think. A small storage space can be cleared and used for a documenting computer. A rarely used procedural room can be turned into a multi-functional space with a small desk for dictating or note-taking.
Furthermore, don’t occupy exam rooms for non-medical or non-personal tasks. For instance, a nutritionist could go over meal plans and eating schedules in an office or nook. Diabetes education, physical therapy exercises, and other non-confidential education can take place in central, public spaces. This leaves exam room open for healthcare professionals to use for confidential consultations.
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Even if you don’t have a large practice with multiple healthcare providers, your office design matters.
Modern spaces signify confidence, transparency and success, which are traits everyone wants to associate with healthcare. Fill your office with practical, but elegant furniture. Use harsh lighting only where you need it (like exam rooms). Opt for comfortable lighting in offices, reception areas, and consultation rooms. Make information and equipment accessible at all times.
Keep in mind that your office is part of your product. It’s the physical component of the service you provide. It’s the first impression you make on your patients. A comfortable, efficient design can improve their experience and your bottom line.
If you’re looking for another powerful way to optimize your workflow, check out IntakeQ.