You’ve been asking us for a forum that lets readers share their best practice-management ideas with the rest of the class. So here it is. Arlene Lewis, MD, gets us started with advice on designing a beautiful, patient-friendly office without breaking the bank.
There was a time when doctors didn’t have to think about their office’s appearance or practice branding. A couple of exam tables, several waiting-room chairs, a front desk, and some equipment were all you needed. The patients came.
But with increasing competition and patient responsibility for healthcare costs, attention to details such as office space design can make a huge difference in practice efficiency, patient volume, and, perhaps most important, word of mouth about your practice.
The good news is that you can make a significant difference with relatively small changes that won’t kill your bank account. In fact, as finances get tighter, making changes that increase efficiency and bring patients through the door becomes even more essential.
When I opened my gynecology practice a year ago, I paid a lot of attention to my office’s appearance and flow, and my patients definitely noticed. A trip to the doctor’s office can be stressful, so I used some simple design elements with a focus on patient comfort to help minimize the tension. And it didn’t cost a fortune.
Here’s what I did.
People respond subconsciously to color - blues and greens calm us, reds excite us. By giving a little thought to your color scheme, you can influence how people entering your space will feel. And if they feel good, they’ll want to come back.
As a gynecologist, I’ve seen lots of pink-and-baby-blue OB/GYN offices, as if they were designed for the unborn child rather than the mother. Instead, I chose three soothing colors (a light tan, sage green, and a melon-like orange), and I repeated these colors in everything from my logo to my stationery and business cards. For me, the paint job was free, since my landlord had to do it before I moved in; but it’s cheap in any case - provided you’re willing to do the job yourself.
Health is in the details
I’m convinced that stress lies at the core of many of today’s health problems, so where better than the doctor’s office to model environmental touches that take the edge off? In my office, I’ve incorporated small, simple elements that really help to reduce my patients’ stress levels.
One of the first things my patients see (and hear) when they enter my office is a calming water fountain. While these can be very expensive, they don’t have to be. Mine cost less than $200, but patients comment every day on how relaxed it makes them feel.
It was my intention to calm all of the senses, with relaxing music playing ($250 for a CD player and some CDs) and a scented candle burning ($3 each). We’ve even included an appeal to patients’ taste buds by offering herbal teas and lemon-and-cucumber water (about $20 a month or less).
Beautiful artwork and unique waiting-room furniture round out the relaxing environment. Items like these can also be expensive, but they don’t have to be. Look for art sales, or offer to buy original pieces from starving art students at your local college. When shopping for furniture, look for pieces that are comfortable, warm, and unique, to take the place of the bland, antiseptic chairs and sofas found in most waiting rooms. Many discount furniture outlets offer nice pieces at reasonable prices.
Patients comment daily on how nice the office looks, feels, and smells, and many say that they plan to tell their friends about it.
Think like a patient
I considered little details that can make a big difference to a patient. Ideally, I would have liked the exam room doors to open in such a way that the door would shield a patient from sight whenever anyone entered the room. Since my landlord wasn’t jumping at the opportunity to change the direction of the doors, I did the next-best thing: I positioned my exam tables so that the foot of each table is facing away from the door. This change, which was free and would be appreciated by patients in almost any practice, has been greeted especially warmly by my patients. Being in stirrups is uncomfortable enough, after all; the last thing a gynecology patient wants is to have someone open the door mid-exam.
Privacy curtains are another option. Because of my exam room layout, I didn’t need them, but I suggest finding an attractive curtain rather than the standard utilitarian healthcare kind. For the same amount of money or less, your office will stand out.
To maximize efficiency, I arranged each exam room the same way. No more fumbling around trying to find something. Everything’s in the same place in each room. I also used a decorative screen to hide scary-looking equipment. The curtains and screen cost around $200.
And with the exception of the exam rooms, I avoided harsh lighting by dimming the exam room’s fluorescent lights and using table lamps.
Let it flow
If you are in the position to build out your space, seriously consider its flow. Trace the steps of a patient visit, and organize the space accordingly. Avoid layouts that will require patients to squeeze by one another as they enter and leave exam rooms or to wait in areas where one patient may hear or see another’s personal information.
Give some thought to staff movement as well. Position nurses’ stations and doctors’ offices to minimize unnecessary steps and optimize efficiency.
Lose the clutter
Some people are just clutter prone, evidenced by the creation of a whole industry to combat it. Whether or not your space is cluttered may seem insignificant, but it can have a surprising impact on your patients’ perception of your practice - and of you.
Many patients will view clutter as evidence of a cluttered state of mind and disorganized clinical decision-making. This may seem silly to us docs, but I have had patients say that they can tell that I’m organized and detail-oriented because of the attention to detail evident in my office space.
Impression is everything; why risk projecting an image of yourself as a scatterbrain when you can avoid that with simple attention to organization and detail? An EMR really helps to decrease clutter as well, but of course, they are not inexpensive.
Brand your practice
Branding is a marketing term that simply refers to creating the overall image you want to project and making sure that every outward facet of your practice upholds and reinforces that image.
In my case, I paid to have a logo professionally designed, and I put it on everything - letterhead, business cards, practice newsletters, print advertisements, and my Web page. The colors of the logo are the same as my office, a detail my patients have noticed. Over time, the repetition of the color scheme and logo tell a story about the practice and its philosophy.
By paying some attention to the design and branding of your office and practice, you can optimize efficiency and create a buzz. Special attention to office design may seem frivolous on the surface, but trust me when I say that patients notice. I even have some who linger in the waiting room after their appointment because it’s so relaxing. You can bet those patients are going to tell somebody. And isn’t that the goal, after all?
Arlene Lewis is a gynecologist in private practice in Fredericksburg, Va. She can be reached via email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Physicians Practice.