How to Design Your Medical Office Waiting Room

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How Design Waiting Room Medical Office

Going to the doctor is nerve racking enough, even if it’s just for a checkup. People sometimes worry they’ll go from feeling perfectly fine when they walk in, to knowing they’re going to die when they walk out. And while this is rarely the case, it doesn’t stop the anxiety.

One study found that the aesthetics and feel of the waiting room affected patient anxiety and perception of the quality of the doctor more than the actual wait time itself.  It also found that things like color scheme, plants, and soft music make people more relaxed in the office as well.

And since studies also show that wait times affect how well you are rated as a medical practitioner, as long as your patients are waiting, it’s best to make that wait as pleasant as possible. So how do you make your waiting area patient-friendly? From reception to chairs to plants, here is our handy guide to design the waiting room in your medical office.

The Size of Your Waiting Room Matters

The only thing worse than spending interminable amounts of time in a waiting room is spending interminable amounts of time in a waiting room wedged between a guy with a hacking cough and another guy whose gut spills over the armrests.

That said, rent is expensive, and you don’t need to waste money on more waiting space than you need.

Figure out about how many patients your medical practice sees in an hour, and multiple that by 1.5 to account for spouses, drivers, or people who had nothing better to do on a Wednesday than go to someone else’s doctor’s appointment. Then figure out how many get sent to waiting rooms in an hour, and take the remainder. That’s the minimum amount of seats you need.

Entrance and Reception

The first thing you need to ensure is that a patient can see the reception desk when he or she walks in. The hidden window to the left of the door isn’t going to fly anymore, and even if you need a confidential area for patient interviews, the reception desk should still be in direct sight of the front door.

The entrance itself should be well-lit and welcoming. Often times, offices will put boards with names and pictures of the doctors on duty right at the front, so people can get to know the staff before even talking to anyone. You might also consider things like umbrella stands and coat racks so patients are not encumbered by their belongings during the visit.

Waiting Room Chairs

There is a new trend in doctors’ offices called “modular seating.” This is where long, cushioned benches are adorned with soft, movable separators so people can create individual seats that fit their body type, or longer benches if they are there with children or a spouse.

If that’s a little too high tech for you, most designers suggest individual chairs ahead of couches, as sitting next to strangers is the last thing people want to do when filling out highly personal medical evaluation forms.

Make sure the chairs face the reception desk, so people don’t ever think they’re being ignored or forgotten. Again, it’s important that your receptionist can see the patients and not be behind a window or glass, since this can also add to that feeling of being stuck in the office.

You also need to consider seating for “special populations” like the elderly, or disabled patients. Remember, many disabled or elderly people have a hard time getting up from sofas and low-level seating, so higher chairs are needed.

Similarly, obese patients require wider chairs, not necessarily more durable ones. The average obese patient is only 294 pounds, and 99% of the population weighs less than 440 pounds, so that expensive chair that supports half a ton isn’t necessary. A wide chair with big armrests however, is.

Lighting, Paint, and Carpet

Fluorescent lights make people feel like they’re in a hospital. And nobody likes hospitals. Use soft, incandescent lights, at least in the waiting area, to make people feel comfortable. If you must use fluorescents at least make sure they’ve got filters to soften the glare.

Try and use a mix of lights, from overhead, tabletop, and natural light. The more light, the more relaxing the room will be, and a variety of sources will give the waiting area a homier feel. Even a small desktop lamp on a waiting table can add a soft touch that reduces patient anxiety.

Though not as easy to maintain, carpeting is still the best option for your flooring. It not only reduces noise, but also gives the waiting room a more comfortable feel. Use darker colors that hide stains, and put welcome mats in high traffic areas so the carpet isn’t worn as quickly. Though it’s a hassle, cleaning your carpets every three months should suffice in most offices.

Finally, you should paint your waiting area a different color than the rest of the office so patients know the separation. Not that they’re likely to get lost, but more so they can associate one area with relaxation and the other with examination. Off white colors are the most soothing, and probably the best way to go.

Decorations and Entertainment

The vast majority of doctors and designers suggest NOT having a television in the waiting room. It adds noise and tells your patients “you’re gonna be here a while. Enjoy the Maury Show.”

But while TV is strongly discouraged, free Wi-Fi is a must. It allows patients to get work done during the waiting time, or lets them check in on Facebook and keep the entire world updated on the status of their tummy ache.

Research also shows that 1 in 5 patients use their phones to do medical research in the waiting area. So they can tell you what’s wrong with them before you get a chance to ask.

You should also play some relaxing music in the waiting area. Smooth jazz might make people feel like they’re shopping for a new couch, but it’s also very soothing. Satellite radio stations are perfect for this, but many music services offer continuous play to businesses like spas and doctor’s offices as well.

Magazines are good for those who don’t like reading on their phones or tablets. But just make sure everything is neutral and inoffensive, with publications like National Geographic or Shape or Men’s Fitness. Let people learn Cosmo’s 48 Best Sex Moves at the grocery store checkout like they’re supposed to.

As for decorations, simple, unobtrusive art makes the room feel less severe. You don’t need to put your own private collection on the walls; a simple trip to the local framing store should yield plenty of prints that will fit the feel of your office. Beyond art, plants not only make the room more alive, they actually keep the air fresh as well.

Another nice touch would be to add some healthy snacks and bottled water. Many times patients come in hungry and the only options are the packaged delicacies in the hallway vending machine. Offering some apples or bananas with bottled water in your waiting room promotes health, and keeps your patients from coming in hungry and irritable.

Will a nice waiting area ensure your patients never freak out and are happy to sit there for half an hour? Of course not. But waiting room design might be one of the most overlooked investments in your medical practice. And one that BFS Capital is always happy to help you make.


Matt Meltzer

Matt Meltzer is a professor of business communication at the University of Miami. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and holds a bachelors degree in business administration from UM, as well as a Masters of Mass Communication from the University of Florida.

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