Dr. Welby Would Be Proud

How one office comforts and impresses patients with 1950s decor

You might think your waiting room is unimportant, just a few square feet that are a necessary first step in the processing of patients. But you'd be wrong.

Your lobby should be an essential element in fostering patient satisfaction.

The American Medical Association claims that patients spend an average of 19 minutes in doctors' waiting rooms - the ultimate captive audience. So why not take advantage of that to engender good feelings, get them excited to meet you, or calm them if they're nervous?

Not possible, you say? Well, get a load of Urological Associates Medical Group in San Francisco.

The small practice provides such a comforting setting that patients find themselves stopping by to absorb the atmosphere even when they don't have appointments.

Kitschy appeal

How'd they do it? For starters, the office building is a veritable tribute to mid-century architecture. Not one fixture in the place has been altered since the property was designed in 1951 - even the white leatherette couch with gold studs is the same one bought five decades ago.

Other vintage furniture fills the waiting room, which is lined with old-style gumwood paneling and oodles of glass. Oh, and there's the back-and-white linoleum. And a cool courtyard with a garden. It's all frozen in time. And patients dig it something fierce.

Leonard Brant, MD, and his wife were merely trying to preserve the building's integrity. But they unwittingly transformed 3637 California St. into something of a hangout. Nowadays, about six patients per day stop by - just because. So captivated are they by the charm of the place that they just want to spend time in the one-story treasure trove. It's a customer satisfaction coup.

"They might bring pastries or donuts. We give them a cup of coffee or tea. They read magazines, listen to classical music, maybe walk in the garden," says Brant with a chuckle.

The whole thing started when Brant took over the practice in the mid '80s. When she laid eyes on the office, Brant's wife's inner preservationist was so spellbound she insisted he not change a thing. He put up a small fight, but she won out.

"The 1950s are just starting to be recognized as a historical style," says Michelle Brant. "People always want to knock things out. I think that's a big mistake if those things are still functioning. It's never a good idea to second-guess the architect."

The architect, in this case, was noted San Franciscan William S. Allen - and not second-guessing him has made a visit to Urological Associates like stepping back into another era. Into the house you grew up in, perhaps.

"[Patients] walk in and they feel good," adds Mrs. Brant. "Everything fits together so you don't get a sense of a hodgepodge, like everyone who has owned it has done something to it."

'Nice place to be'

The overall effect has patients seeing stars. And none of it cost big cash. In fact, Brant says he's paid next to nothing to keep it the way it is. Has it fattened the practice's bottom line?

Maybe not, but that's not really the point. "I don't know if this really builds my practice; all of my patients are referred," he says. "But it makes the office a very nice place to be." And he adds that the soothing atmosphere does help to calm anxious patients before procedures. "They're comfortable here."

Will Urological Associates remain frozen in time forever? Brant hopes so. His son, William, is scheduled to finish his residency in urology in four years. After that, he may join his dad's practice, perhaps taking it over.

But will William keep the place one of the surprisingly few physician practices that make a serious effort at providing major atmosphere? Only time will tell.

"I don't know what he'd do," says Brant. "But I do think he appreciates the beauty of it."

Suz Redfearn can be reached via editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2001 issue of Physicians Practice.