A trip to the dentist can for most patients be described in three words: Anxiety, Anxiety and Anxiety (and perhaps potential pain and a frustrating wait would qualify if fourth and fifth words could be included). Many tools used are sure to remind carpenters and mechanics of their own tools of their trades; Combine that with a labyrinth of rooms with no visible escape, lighting that suggests a surgical center, warning labels and lead coveralls that suggest childbearing may not be an option combine to create anxiety that is certainly not unreasonable in many patients eyes! Suffice it to say a fish aquarium in the lobby isn’t going to resolve the average patients’ apprehension. With the necessities of the practice in mind, there are a few goals, that when followed, will alleviate the anxiety for the patients while maximizing the function and efficiency within the doctor’s office.
Most often, doctors’ offices are designed with one waiting room. The same amount of space could accommodate two areas and thus create a perception of “moving up in the line” for the patient. The first thing a patient is required to do is sign in – often accompanied by the completion of paperwork related to payment and insurance. This initial entrance space should be inviting and should be designed in a way patients are greeted immediately! Signing in and hoping for a front office attendant to open the frosted glass door is intimidating and demeaning to many patients. It makes them feel their time is not important and that they are not a priority. A simple “hello” spoken to a patient as they sign in can go a long way, and the office can easily be designed to protect the privacy of other patients. This initial greeting and sign-in room need not be elaborate, but once a patient’s record has been pulled and necessary paperwork has been fulfilled, patients should be invited into a more intimate room. This room should be “behind the glass” but convey a sense that they have moved up in the queue.
This space should offer additional distraction – enter the television tuned to CNN or ESPN in addition to the usual magazines. In the space between or closely adjacent to the waiting rooms, a restroom should be available. This room should be in plain sight so the patient will know it is for public use. This will add to the comfort level of the patient who may be nervous regarding an upcoming procedure. It is critical that these spaces not be designed as a labyrinth. Patient anxiety will increase exponentially if they feel trapped, and layout diagrams of the office should be clearly posted – as well as exit routes.
Now it’s finally your turn with the doc… Hopefully, you were greeted when you entered the office and have progressed to a comfortable waiting room that makes you feel your turn with the doctor is imminent. Exam rooms should be aligned along a simple hallway. Rooms should be numbered, and again a diagram of the office should be easily accessible to each patient. Getting called back to an exam room, of course, does not guarantee you will be seen in the next couple of minutes. Therefore, this room should also provide seating that is not connected with the medical practice. It is ideal if a natural view can be accommodated without making the patient feel they could potentially be on display during a procedure. If this is not possible, perhaps television or some other distraction that does not potentially pass pathogens along (sneezed on magazines) would be in order. Credentials and soothing prints are good, but photos of satisfied customers or private pictures taken by the staff are much more intimate and convey a stronger sense of relationship.
Now, certain “tools of the trade” must be present. Any time these items can be concealed in built-in cabinets – to be revealed only when in use. This is a relatively inexpensive way to make a patient all the more trusting. Any use of built in cabinets is always a plus. A white room with a cheap white cabinet full of prodding instruments that are about to be placed in a patient’s mouth is not going to give a patient much reassurance. Instead, built in cabinets made of wood with slide out drawers that are easily constructed and concealed will likely convey the sense of comfort and home to a patient.
In the end, effective design and layout of a dental office can convey a sense of calm to a patient. The cost of effective design is minimal, and the advantages can mean the difference between a frightening experience in an unfamiliar land or the feeling of visiting a friend. Lastly, be sure to separate where a patient schedules their next appointment (and pays) from the areas where patients are waiting. A separate exit could even be a great idea if it can be incorporated. With good design, anxiety and pain need not be a reason for a patient to avoid the dentist. Good design makes patients feel at ease. Combining proper layout and management makes patients feel their time is as valuable as the doctor they have come to see. With good design – your patients will feel welcome guests, and that is a prescription for good healthcare.