Making Your Patient Waiting Room Friendly for All

June 23, 2016

The Civility CEO lets you know how to ensure your patients' waiting room is friendly for people of all ages and all temperaments.

Dear Sue,

We see a lot of children in my family practice. Sometimes all those kids can cause chaos in the waiting room, which annoys other patients and their families. How can we keep everyone occupied so there's a sense of calm in the sitting area?

Not Kidding

Dear Not Kidding,

Creating balance in a medical office waiting room can be a challenge because of the assortment of people who gather there. Family practices usually host several dichotomous groups in the same room at the same time, including sick versus well, young versus old, and easygoing versus stressed out.

Here's an innovative way to put your medical expertise to use by viewing your waiting room from a SOAP perspective.

Subjective. Start by asking patients and those who accompany them for honest feedback about their experience in your waiting area. The best way to obtain this information is through a simple questionnaire that includes a 1-10 satisfaction scale and no more than five questions. Allow space for responders to write comments and suggestions. Frame the survey in a positive light by letting participants know you are striving to make improvements and you appreciate their input. Provide them the choice to complete the form anonymously or by name, and then brace yourself for the responses.

Objective. Next, gather real-life information about the state of your waiting room by putting an unbiased observer in the shoes (or in this case, the chairs) of your patients. Since you're not in the position to be an impartial witness, ask a trusted family member, medical student, or friend to occupy the space for an hour or so at different times throughout the day. Have them gather facts by watching the dynamics of the people in your waiting room, according to the setup of the room in its current state. More specifically, seek feedback on these three criteria: activities for all age groups, arrangement of seating, and reverberation of sound.

Assessment. Evaluate the results of the survey and compare them to the evidence gathered by your observer. Look for consistencies that support making changes. If, for example, you see a commonality concerning noise levels based on the proximity of chairs to one another, you'll be able to deduct that rearranging the furniture is a prudent move. You may also receive suggestions like creating a separate area for children, installing a kid-level television, or providing more reading materials.

Plan. Now that you know where things stand from both a subjective and an objective perspective, you are in a position to make changes to enhance your waiting room. Because cleanliness is a primary concern in medical common areas, it's not usually feasible to offer a variety of toys and games for children. Instead, consider creating a play area with surfaces that are easy to wipe down and activities kids can take home with them, like individual coloring pages and small "to-go" boxes of crayons.

These few changes ought to help you customize a more peaceful waiting area.

Dear Sue,

I'm new to a rheumatology practice. One of the senior medical partners is rude and obnoxious. She has belittled and verbally slammed me in front of our colleagues. I've seen her intimidate other staff members as well, but everyone seems to put up with it. What's the best way for me to deal with this without rocking the boat?

Feeling Demeaned

Dear Feeling Demeaned,

Sadly, rudeness is running rampant in every profession, including medicine. And whether people are communicating their displeasure with their voice, their keyboard, or their body language, disrespect causes discomfort.

Here are three steps that may help you establish boundaries and create harmony:

Listen with impartiality. Listening from a neutral perspective will empower you to hear more. Some people simply don't know how to articulate advice in a constructive manner, so pay attention to the tone, the context, and the validity of each of the comments your colleague is making. Then, ask yourself these two questions: (1) Does her remark have any merit? (2) Is what she's sharing a fact or a frustration? If there is a degree of actual value to her statement, take what you can from it as a chance to learn and improve. If, on the other hand, her feedback is an indication of general annoyance that has nothing to do with your abilities, you need to focus on fixing things.

Document the specifics. Make notes after each unpleasant interaction. Divide them into two columns, labeling one FACT and the other FEELING. Then, document what she said, as close to verbatim as possible, in the FACT column. Besides that, write down how it affected you in the FEELING column. Then, do your best to let it go for now.

Make the problem part of the solution. Rather than talking with everyone else about your concerns, go directly to the source, notes in hand. Request a meeting with your adversary. Calmly state the facts, including details of each diatribe. Then share your feelings and declare your expectations. Try saying something like, "In the past couple of weeks you've spoken impolitely to me three times. For example, at Tuesday's meeting you criticized my documentation of Mr. Smith's follow-up plan. I felt uncomfortable when you called me out in front of everyone else. Can we please agree that in the future you'll share your concerns in private and in a more respectful manner? I'd like to know we can communicate with more clarity and courtesy. Thank you."

Your colleague's behavior says more about her than it does about you. Hopefully this strategy will help lessen the stress of your communication challenges.

Sue Jacquesis a professionalism expert who specializes in medical and corporate civility. A veteran forensic medical investigator, Jacques is a keynote speaker, author, and consultant who helps people and practices prosper through professionalism. She can be reached via her website www.TheCivilityCEO.com.