There are many different experiences that make up a patient’s interaction with your practice, from your web presence, your mobile accessibility, your forms and even the friendliness of your office staff.

But one potentially impactful experience that may be overlooked is the physical space of your clinic – your waiting room, your offices, and yes, even your bathrooms.

The layout and design of your office can positively or negatively influence the perception a patient has of your trustworthiness and your ability to provide top quality care.

While you may not always have the ability to rearrange or rebuild your office (zoning codes, costs and other factors can limit your physical space), there are things you can do to ensure your office is reassuring to those who step foot in it.

And much like web design, there are certain elements of your office – and general attitudes and approaches to your space – that can optimize your patient experience or hinder it.

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Design Choices That Affect Care

The main spaces that patients will encounter in your practice will typically be your waiting room, patient rooms and, in some cases, an office or meeting room. They may also be in rehab areas or other communal spaces, but for the most part, your waiting room and patient rooms will be the primary places they will spend their time.

Common elements in those spaces that affect the patient experience might include:

  • Seating – Is there enough room for patients to sit without feeling cramped? Can seating be moved around if needed? How comfortable are chairs for longer waits?
  • Entertainment – What is around to distract patients? Can they read a magazine or book? Is there access to Wi-Fi or computers? Is there a TV or other screens available?
  • Lighting – Is lighting harsh or soft? Do patients have enough light to read or look over paperwork? Can they adjust the lighting if needed? Is there enough natural light in the room?
  • Artwork and Paint – Is there something to look at? Are there pieces that add relaxation (water fountains, calming images) and color to the room? Is the paint color of the walls reflective of health?
  • Layout – Do patients have room to spread out and find their own space if needed? Can someone work on their laptop or find a table if they need to fill out paperwork? Is there a child-friendly nook for parents and families?

How these elements are designed – where they are placed, how easy they are to access, how they make the patient feel – can all impact the patient experience. Waiting rooms are especially important when it comes to design, as they may be the first touchpoint for your patient (aside from your web site).

According to architect Marc Margulies, many clinics are shifting their waiting room aesthetics from being more “clinical” to reflect retail or home environments instead. “[Clinics are becoming] more hospitality oriented, with residential-type furniture and places to plug in electronic devices,” he says.

Rosalyn Cama, author of Evidence-based Health Care Design, recommends using more comfortable chairs to start: “Being forced to sit next to someone you don’t know in a hard chair with your back against the wall and bad TV blaring makes patients feel like they’re being held hostage.”

So what does that mean in terms of office design? In short, clinics should focus on making patients as welcome and comfortable as possible. This may include things like:

  • Using soft lighting, opting for lamps and natural light over harsh overhead bulbs
  • Using separate chairs with softer fabric instead of single-row or connected seating
  • Offering more forms of entertainment (TV, for instance, even if it’s subtitled)
  • Brightening the room with artwork and other décor (rugs, fountains, etc.)
  • Choosing paint colors that are soft and muted in relaxing colors
  • Providing as much room as possible, especially in the waiting room
  • Paying attention to traffic flow (where are patients entering and exiting?)

If you’re not sure what to include or change in your office to put patients at ease, consider surveying patients or including a section in your intake forms about their environmental needs.

Other Amenities That Improve Experience

There are a few other design elements and features that may improve the patient experience as well. Of course, some clinics can get pretty creative with their offerings (this dentist’s office has massage chairs and mini-fridges full of beverages), but there are other amenities you can include that will improve the overall feel of your office.

Plants. After 25 years of research, former NASA scientist Dr. Bill Wolverton found that plants could significantly improve air quality in small spaces, especially plants like English ivies, gerbera daisies, peace lilies, rubber plants, spider plants, Boston ferns and weeping figs. Having plants in your waiting room not only promotes air purification, but can also lift spirits and add to your design aesthetic.

Online forms. While not an in-office design feature, giving patients the ability to fill out forms in the comfort of their home environment may reduce the time they spend in your office, which, in turn, improves the patient experience.

Online tours. Some patients may benefit from an online office tour or images of your space they can peruse before setting foot in your physical space. Having pictures of your waiting room and doctors’ rooms may help patients navigate the space faster and easier once they arrive.

Photo credit Matthias Zomer

Empathy Is the Key to Comfort

When students at the Institute of Design at Stanford were looking for ways to improve the patient experience in Stanford’s emergency department, they used design thinking (a methodology used to solve complex problems) to better understand how patients feel in chaotic environments, like those in a clinic waiting room.

Their primary focus was on how patients felt in the waiting room and throughout their visit, not necessarily the quality of the medical advice they were given. They found that patients were happier and more trusting of their medical care when the overall experience was more sympathetic to their pain.

Empathy-related elements throughout the clinic like stress balls and reading materials for distraction can increase a sense of wellbeing for nervous patients.

Consider what you would be feeling if you were at the doctor’s office for a diagnosis. What would help you remain calm and squelch any fears? What technology or physical resources would you need to make you feel safe? What design elements would make you nervous (closed-off spaces, etc.)?

Having an empathetic approach to design will help you maximize the patient experience throughout the practice, whether or not you actually make significant changes to your layout or décor.

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Final Thoughts

Don’t be afraid to offer things that are unique to your space. If you’re in a smaller location with no ability to expand, consider opting for more comfortable furniture and less artwork or décor.

If you have room to move around, consider offering multiple spaces for patients to interact with each other (or alternatively, be left alone if needed). Include child-friendly spaces and places where people can work or read, for example.

You should also consider branding when choosing color schemes and other design elements for your office, but keep in mind that some colors or décor choices may increase anxiety for some patients (you may need to opt for lighter or more muted shades of your branded colors, for instance).

When in doubt, choose comfort over high-end design. And for the best patient experience possible, ensure that your staff is equally warm and inviting as your physical environment.