Six Ways To Improve Doctors' Waiting Rooms

Spanish design consultancy Fuelfor shows how better design can reduce patients' anxiety while they wait (and wait and wait) at the doctor's office.

Waiting endlessly in a doctor’s office ranks up there as one of life’s premier annoyances, right alongside queuing up at the DMV and getting manhandled at airport security. Short of overhauling our overstretched health care system, though, the problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Luckily, design can make it a hell of a lot more tolerable.

So suggests Fuelfor, a Spanish design consultancy, which compiled a case study on "Rethinking the waiting room." Research has shown that a well-designed waiting room -- one that includes everything from comfortable chairs to clear signage to easy-to-use patient response forms -- can bolster how patients feel about the care they receive and even streamline the care process itself. Fuelfor has identified six ways of dramatically improving waiting rooms. We've summarized them below:

Comfortable seating
Waiting when you’re sick is bad enough. Waiting in a crappy chair when you’re sick is downright galling. What’s more, what’s comfortable for one patient might be deeply uncomfortable, or even painful, for another. Fuelfor proposes a modular seating system, called MODU, that can be adapted to different offices and individuals. Movable armrests and seating pads with various amounts of cushion let people create their own little comfort zone. Planters keep the air feeling fresh and displays at the end of each bench apprise patients of their wait time. Acoustic separators eke out space for private phone calls.

Manageable queues
“Queue management displays in waiting rooms make people feel physically tied to one spot,” Fuelfor writes. Taking a number isn’t much better -- it’s impersonal and disposable (not unlike your average doctor’s appointment). Fuelfor’s solution: feature wait-time displays prominently in multiple places, not just over the central counter. People who don’t want to hang around the waiting room can download Inline, a conceptual iPhone app that reveals their number in the queue with a clear, simple interface. It also lets patients book appointments, locate the room of their appointment, and track medications, among other health-management features.

Clear medical records
More and more, medical records are going digital, but Fuelfor suggests a low-tech alternative to ensure that people can simply and viscerally manage their own health. With FOLIO, patients store their medications and appointment dates in paper wallets that be thrown in a purse or back pocket and carted easily to the doctor’s office. At the office, they use the FOLIO info to fill out “Prepare,” a patient-response form that asks simple questions in a clear format designed to prevent mistakes. After the appointment, doctors fill out a separate “Remember” form that includes prescriptions and other health advice. It might sound like a lot of paperwork, but with good graphic design, it can actually feel pretty simple.

Healthy food
It’s always hilarious (in a depressing way) to see vending machines full of chips, candy, and soda at medical clinics that are supposed to be billboards for healthy living. Fuelfor conceived of a vending machine that dispenses water, apples, and other nutritious snacks while you wait. It’s even designed like a kitchen counter to emphasize the idea that smart eating starts at home.

Welcoming signage
Doctors’ waiting rooms can feel terribly impersonal and bureaucratic. To inject a modicum of humanity, Fuelfor recommends throwing up welcome boards that introduce the doctors on duty (complete with portraits, so they aren’t just faceless names) and post information about healthy activities and classes, like yoga for seniors and cooking lessons.

Communal space
Fuelfor says that communal tables can help reduce patients’ anxiety in a waiting room. We’re not totally sold on this one. People like privacy. Especially sick people. Then again, if you’re at the doctor’s office with your family, a large table where you can gather and discuss sensitive medical problems makes a lot of sense. It could also figure prominently during medical consultations (just as long as it isn’t, you know, too communal). Think about it: Instead of parking it on an examination table while your doctor dispenses advice that you can’t even pay attention to because you feel so awkward in your ridiculous little gown, you could meet at a big, roomy table -- clothes on, dignity intact.

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    Interesting, thanks. I especially like the ideas that underscore humanizing the waiting room through personal bios, events, seating and so forth. It is great a lot of attention is turning to the often-overlooked waiting room but I wonder if we are thinking about redesign in the most holistic of ways, given that patients and families tend to occupy a number of spaces (main entrance, waiting room, restroom, cafe, consult room, radiology, etc) that shape their feelings and experiences as well. That said, what kind of experience are we trying to produce from the moment patients, families and providers walk in to work/or to be cared for and how can we achieve this given the many needs? Since waiting can happen in a number of places inside the clinic, it seems like these improvements must be tinkered with endlessly given the culture and context of the space.  

  • NENewMedia

    The color, typography and the physical space is so beautiful. Numbers are great enhancers of perception. Stepping through the process in the waiting room with numbers is a great idea. Physical separation of waiting room allows privacy and at the same time avoids those awkward blank stares at others. It also helps you to move around and explore what is happening in the other pod.
    Thanks for a great article.

  • Harold Gragg

    Also, I hoped Fuelfor and this article would have expressed the value in a multilingual signage and audio whether automated or requiring multilingual staff.  

  • Harold Gragg

    I develop and install queuing software as described in this article for hospitals  pharmacies, DMV's etc.   I love the idea of using phones as communication devices, whether the message is sms, smartphone app a phone call etc......BUT it is a huge security risk to beam data from a hospital network through a cell phone carrier or across the internet.  With HIPAA and HL7 regulations in place using a cell phone for communication to a patient is going to be a challenge.  Posting data online like average wait times and service times for a specific office has been accepted as safe, but I usually recommend against it because the office opens itself to an implicitly delivery time which can dramatically be affected based on customer arrivals. 

  • Corey Leamon

    I'm glad that a provider (Scott) responded to this, because I had a feeling that few or none of the type were consulted with this project. Waiting rooms, and health in general, are certainly areas where good design is crucial and needs to be re-examined.

    The first red light for me was the smart phone app - I think that too often, designers turn to smart phones as solutions without thinking of alternatives. Yes, smart phones are more affordable now, but they still aren't cheap. There are many people who don't have them, and I would presume that people who have to go wait in a public doctor's office are more likely to be one of them.

    I am also a bit skeptical of the table. I rarely see families going to regular doctor appointments. It's agreeable that we'd all rather have our clothes on when getting medical advice, but we also need to remember that most doctors have very tight schedules. Would that extra time waiting for a patient to get their clothes on and go into a separate room lead to extra fiscal cost? I'd love to think every doctor was willing to spend a little more time with their patients (I have one who bothers to even chat about life with me, and it's fantastic), but that's simply not the case. And at that, most people would likely prefer a lot of privacy when receiving medical news, even from family.

  • Scott Mills

    As a health care provider I recognize the design recommendations but some of them are simply impractical.  The seating displayed in the article is simply terrible for anyone with musculoskeletal problems; the arm rests must be fixed and sturdy for support as people move in and out of seating.  Cushions must also be fixed for stability, and the suggested high seatbacks are a barrier to communication. 
    Manageable ques are a great idea but not in the way suggested - how can we suppose that everyone has a smartphone to track their time in the que?  Also, when we display the que on a public display how can we ensure privacy without giving them an impersonal number?
    I'm all for better designed forms, more communicative materials, and better food choices.  Communal meeting rooms are not particularly practical because of the space necessary, but I agree that important information must be given when the patient is fully clothed and in a more comfortable atmosphere.
    Having multiple people in the consultation room does not result in clearer communication - in fact it often creates more confusion leading to misunderstanding.  Having the patient and two others seems ideal and is often enough to discuss fundamental information and essential directions without other interpersonal issues diverting attention. 

    This article helps to focus our attention on the experience of the visit - often the most overlooked aspect of healthcare!

  • Mary Pat Whaley

    These are good ideas, but some other alternatives are:

     - Don't assume that all patients can read a chalkboard or exit summary or write information on a form. Provide ways for patients to hear upcoming events and receive a phone message, video or min-podcast with the summary of their visit.

    - If the doc is running late, give the patient an option to take a PatientPager and let them leave and come back, or give them an electronic device to entertain or educate.

  • Karyl Gilbertson

    These are pretty darn good ideas. I too am not sold on the communal tables bit, but the rest seems like it would make a meaningful, positive impact on the healthcare environment.

    The problem comes in at adoption, as is the case with many redesigns of spaces already widespread in our cultures. Will doctors or hospitals, who make money as it is with the crappy environments that they have, have any impetus to invest in change that doesn't directly benefit themselves? And because of the overstretched system, we can't rely on "the market" to help push providers in the right direction, as we're lucky to have a family doctor in the first place and switching to someone who understands good design isn't always an option.