Making a Great First Impression at Your Medical Practice

There's a lot to be said for first impressions. So, when do your new patients form their first impressions of you?

There's a lot to be said for first impressions. Scientists say they are made within the first three seconds of meeting someone. We form our initial opinion of just about everything - a new song, a new place, a new person - in those first three seconds, our senses working in harmony or disharmony.

So here's a short multiple choice quiz. When do your new patients form their first impressions of you?

A. When you enter the exam room

B. When you introduce yourself

C. When you shake their hand

If you answered A, B, or C, you are wrong. Sorry for the trick question. Each patient makes her first impression of you before she even sees you. There are at least three important opportunities for you to make a good impression before you first meet your patient. Each has the power to affirm a patient's hope that you offer the answers she seeks or make your encounter an uphill event. If each of these three moments of truth is positive, your patients will have a positive first impression of you even before laying eyes upon you.

This is simple stuff, but it is the stuff we trip over every day.

1. The first first impression - the appointment

A patient's initial contact with your practice often is by phone. If the patient is greeted brusquely with a "hold please" must navigate a list of ten options, or is transferred more than once when just trying to make an appointment, this first first impression will be negative. Anyone who answers your phones or makes your appointments must be friendly, professional, and organized.

Friendly, because we are in the caring business; professional, because your staff is an extension of your credentials and training; and organized, because making an appointment should be straightforward and clear.

2. The second first impression - the waiting room

Patients also take their cues from the "vibe" of your waiting room. That second first impression occurs when they walk into your office for the first time. It happens very quickly. If your waiting room conveys friendliness, professionalism, organization, and neatness, it will be a positive moment of truth.

• Friendliness. Your waiting room should be inviting rather than imposing. Patients should feel welcome. It sounds simple, I know. A receptionist's window obscured by tattered notices, "cold" colors, a chipped counter - patients take their initial cue very quickly, so make sure it is positive.

• Professionalism. Patients are turned off by soiled carpet, worn-out fabric on chairs, and mismatched furniture. In the mind of a patient, a dirty waiting room raises concerns about the attention to detail of your practice.

• Organization. A disheveled waiting room is a clue to a disheveled practice. Is yours full of old magazines, empty literature racks, and pharma rep propaganda? I hope not.

• Neatness.  Most practices have employees check the waiting room several times a day for coffee cups that were left behind, magazines that have ended up on the floor, etc. Also, the flow should be considerate, taking into account room for wheelchairs to maneuver. If your waiting room looks like a bus station with unbroken rows of chairs, it will leave a poor first impression.

*For a quick and easy checklist on preparing and maintaining a patient-friendly waiting room, check out our tools section on

3. The third first impression - the greeting

When I conduct interviews to find a receptionist, I am looking for "sunshine." I am looking for someone with the gift of making each person who comes into the waiting room feel as if he is the MVP, the "Most Valuable Patient." The sunshine I seek is someone who can put a patient at ease and who projects the confidence that the patient has made the right decision in coming to your practice. Your sunshine may be the most important first impression of all.

As a physician, you get a second chance to make a good first impression, but why risk it? By optimizing these other first impressions, you will find your patients like and trust you before they even set eyes on you. It's a big advantage.

Lucien W. Roberts, III, MHA, FACMPE, is vice president of Pulse Systems, Inc., and a former practice administrator. For the past 20 years, he has worked in and consulted with physician practices in areas such as compliance, physician compensation, negotiations, strategic planning, and billing/collections. He can be reached at