Research shows that a well-designed waiting room helps to alleviate patient stress and anxiety. Better still, you don’t need a complete renovation to reap the rewards. By Angela Tufvesson
For most patients, waiting for a dental appointment is about as enjoyable as sitting in traffic or having dinner with the in-laws. Sterile surrounds, strange smells and limited entertainment options—cue daytime television and out-of-date magazines—can even increase their level of anxiety and stress. The good news is that merely tweaking the design of the waiting room can help to calm nervous patients—and boost your financial bottom line.
An extensive body of research shows that a well-designed waiting room can remove patient stress, improve medical outcomes and boost the overall quality of healthcare. One study published in The British Journal of General Practice that looked specifically at primary care observed what happened when a large, city-based general practice moved from a converted Victorian house to new purpose-built premises.
Where the old waiting room had been noisy, lacked privacy, and offered only basic standards of comfort and decoration, the new one was designed with careful attention to lighting, noise and furnishings, and was considerably larger.
Sure enough, patients reported feeling less anxiety before and after their appointments in the new premises than they had felt in the old. Increased space and light, a more modern appearance, greater comfort and the presence of artwork were all factors.
The enhanced environment was also associated with improvement in patients’ perception of patient-doctor communication and an increase in overall satisfaction with the practice.
What you can do
There is no need to fret if your waiting room needs a makeover but you are not planning to move premises—there is still a lot you can do with some simple aesthetic and functional improvements.
Architect Sam Russell from Melbourne-based dental fit-out specialist Create Dental says a calming sensory experience is key to helping patients relax in the waiting room. “To achieve relaxation through good design, it is necessary to consider all of the patient’s senses from their first step into the practice—what do we want them to hear, see, touch and even smell and taste?”
Natural textures and hues help to create a calming visual environment, says Russell’s colleague, designer Michael Lewington. “Natural light is an important element, and specific colours like green and blue have been proven to provide a calming effect, says Lewington. “Blues are proven to be calming to the mind, while greens are restful for the eye and can assist in relieving stress. Timber finishes can also soften up the space and be used for feature slatted partitions for workflow.”
Ian Shapland from Elite in Queensland, which specialises in dental, veterinary and medical fit-outs, says it is best to avoid overuse of strong colours like red. “You have to from a hygienic and professional perspective be quite clinical; you can then bring colours and textures into the design that make it feel warmer,” he advises. “Heavy red can be quite intimidating. You can use red quite well but not if it’s a wall of red when you walk in the door.”
“Acoustics are also an important factor,” says Michael Lewington. “It’s important in the design that there is suitable attenuation between the surgeries and waiting areas to ensure patients waiting cannot hear what’s occurring within the surgeries.”
To mask any smells in the practice that may be on the nose, Sam Russell suggests aromatherapy. “The smell of a dental practice can be very distinctive and disguising this with scented candles and other aromatherapy techniques can help relaxation.”
The remaining senses can be put at ease with relaxing music and herbal teas.
As for furniture and layout, Ian Shapland says patients should be able to see the receptionist from wherever they are seated. “When patients sit down they should be able to make clear eye contact with the receptionist. If the receptionist can’t see the patients, it really makes the patients feel quite alone and intimidated.”
Ideally too, the size of the waiting room and practice are proportional to each other. “It’s not practical to have a huge waiting room for a two-room practice or a tiny waiting room for an eight-room practice,” says Michael Lewington. “Patients and staff must be able to move about the waiting area freely and purposefully, and a patient should not be obstructed by elements or too close to other patients waiting for their appointments.”
Balance and harmony
To take the vibe in the waiting room to the next level, some practice owners may want to consider the ancient Chinese art of feng shui, which emphasises harmony with the surrounding environment to promote health and good fortune.
Carol Partridge from Sacred Feng Shui Design in Melbourne says incorporating just some aspects of the system’s five elements—earth, wood, water, fire and metal—will help to create a calm, balanced space.
She suggests combining a green feature wall with beige, brown and yellow tones to promote connection to the earth. Indoor plants provide a wood element; a fish tank, water feature or even a painting of a beach scene invoke the water element. A skylight or thin blind will allow natural light into the practice to satisfy the fire element.
There is no need to worry about the metal element which is already amply catered to in the practice.
“In dental clinics they’re often very white and the metal element can be too strong, so we add more of the other elements to create a balance,” says Partridge.