What are we waiting for? Rethinking the waiting experience in healthcare.

Impatiently Waiting - Jason ParksBlog post by Colin Hung

Last week, a close friend of mine was telling me about “an amazing experience” that he had at a doctor’s office. He arrived 10 minutes before his appointment and was floored by the modern furniture and welcoming décor of the waiting room. The room was full of up-to-date reading material and there were two TVs (on mute) showing the local news channel with closed captioning on.

However, that wasn’t the “amazing” part – what impressed my friend the most was two things that he had never experienced before. First, after 5 minutes of waiting the receptionist came out from behind her desk, sat beside my friend and told him in a hushed tone that the doctor was running about 15 minutes behind.

Second, the receptionist handed some papers to my friend and said that the doctor had printed some articles that he thought might help my friend with his chronic condition. The receptionist hinted that now would be a good time to read them since he could ask the doctor any questions he might have about the tips in the articles.

My friend was clearly impressed with the way the waiting area was designed and, more importantly, with the way he was treated while waiting.

We have all spent time in waiting rooms, whether at the doctor’s office, dentist’s office or at the local hospital. I’m sure if we conducted a poll on #hcldr the prevailing opinion would lean towards a negative waiting experience.

So what can be done to improve how and where patients wait? Are waiting areas around the world doomed to be forever stuck with 1970s décor and matching furniture? Should money be “wasted” in this non-clinical area?

In 2011 Spanish design company fuelfor made a splash with their ebook: “It’s not just about time! A design exploration of the waiting experience in healthcare”. In it, fuelfor dissected the waiting experience into several key stages:

  • Arriving and registering
  • Locating the waiting area
  • Finding a spot
  • Settling down
  • Passing the time
  • Getting ready to be seen

Each stage, according to fuelfor, is an opportunity for a healthcare provider to impress or depress a patient. To impress patients, the company makes several key recommendations (summarized nicely in this Fast Company post):

  1. Comfortable seating
  2. Better queue management – no more “take a number” systems
  3. Tools that help people utilise waiting time – like wellness information
  4. Positive health messages – get rid of candy & chips from vending machines
  5. Better and more welcoming signage
  6. Communal space – for kids, families and even for the providers to meet

fuelfor reimagined waiting roomThis last suggestion is particularly insightful given how our demographics have changed over the past decade. Going to get care used to be a solitary experience, but nowadays it’s common to see a patient along with one or more caregivers/loved ones with them at their appointments. Not many waiting areas are designed to accommodate such “entourages”.

Deborah Breunig says it succinctly in her post “Supporting Your Organization’s Competitive Position: Evolving the Wait and Waiting Rooms”:

Today’s patient-centered facilities must actively acknowledge that families play an important role within the patients’ care team. Large, extended and mixed families increasingly make up a patient’s care-giving community. When it comes to waiting rooms, most visitors would prefer to have the additional support and company of family and friends while they wait for news about their loved one.

Some view investing in waiting areas as a complete waste of money and resources. They argue that the waiting area is non-clinical space and as healthcare providers they should focus on the clinical aspects first and foremost. It’s difficult to argue against this logic. Given the choice between spending money on a new life-saving medical instrument or a comfortable chair, I’d hope that healthcare providers opt for the former and forgo the latter

However, I do not believe that the waiting areas and waiting experience can be a complete afterthought. It can (and does) have an impact on patient well-being and that is totally aligned with the goals of every healthcare provider. In fact, investing in the waiting area can have surprising ancillary benefits. Just ask the NHS.

According to a Daily Mail article, between 2010 and 2011 there were almost 60,000 reported assaults on NHS staff in England. While most of these involved patients who were not responsible for their actions (medical conditions, adverse reaction to treatment, behavior health issues, etc.) there were many that were attributed to increased aggression and anxiety AFTER arriving at the healthcare facility. In an effort to reduce assaults, the NHS commissioned designers, psychologists and other experts to redesign facilities to keep people calm in waiting rooms.

Isn’t it time we put some thought into the waiting experience? What are we waiting for?

Join us Tuesday July 22nd 2014 at 8:30pm Eastern Time (for your local time click here) for the weekly #hcldr tweetchat where we will be discussing the following topics:

  • T1: How can the physical design & décor of healthcare waiting areas be improved?
  • T2: As a patient, what would you like to have happen/not happen while waiting for your appointment?
  • T3: Should $$$ be spent on improving the waiting experience or can the $$$ be better spent?
  • CT: One thing you learned tonight that you can take back & use to help a patient or your organization tomorrow?


“It’s not just about time! A design exploration of the waiting experience in healthcare”, Fuelfor, 2011, http://issuu.com/fuelfor/docs/waitbook_pdf/15?e=0/6480723, accessed July 20 2014

“Six Ways to Improve Doctors’ Waiting Rooms”, Suzanne Labarre, Fast Company, August 16 2011, http://www.fastcodesign.com/1664797/six-ways-to-improve-doctors-waiting-rooms, accessed July 20 2014

“Rethinking the Emergency Department”, John F Wheary, Healthcare Design Magazine, February 12 2014, http://www.healthcaredesignmagazine.com/article/rethinking-emergency-department, accessed July 20 2014

“Redesigning the patient experience for safer care”, Kevin B O’Reilly, American Medical News, June 24 2013, http://www.amednews.com/article/20130624/profession/130629967/4/, accessed July 20 2014

“A&E to get ‘calming’ redesign to stop patients losing their tempers as attacks on NHS staff reach record levels”, Laruen Paxman, Daily Mail, November 16 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2062208/NHS-hospitals-A-E-waiting-rooms-redesigned-stop-patients-losing-tempers.html, accessed July 20 2014

“Taking Care of Those Who Wait: Creating the Ideal Waiting Room Experience”, Donna McQuillen and Michele  Derheim, EP Lab Digest, November 2009, http://www.eplabdigest.com/articles/Taking-Care-Those-Who-Wait-Creating-Ideal-Waiting-Room-Experience, accessed July 20 2014

Image Credit

“Impatiently Waiting” by Jason Parks


One comment

  1. […] for? Rethinking the Waiting Experience in Healthcare”, Colin Hung, HCLDR Blog, July 20 2014, https://hcldr.wordpress.com/2014/07/20/rethinking-waiting/, accessed April 1 […]

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