April 1999 Bulletin

Is your reception room a 'feel good' place?

Décor, amenities, staff empathy give patients a pleasant memory of office

By Sandra Lee Breisch

Does your reception area provide a pleasant and productive experience for your patients? Are your patients greeted by name and with enthusiasm? Or do they feel they're just a number and not a human being?

Don't know?

Try the "waiting room" test. Pretend you're a patient. Spend 30 minutes to an hour in this room and ask yourself, "Would I want to spend this much time in here? Is it a 'feel good' place? Is the reception area neat and clean? What could I do here while I wait?"

This is the "ultimate test" to find out if your reception area paints a negative image of you and your practice, explains Deborah L. Walker, a consultant in medical practice operations for the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) who heads up courses on improving day-to-day practice operations. "Many physicians never venture into the waiting room and really don't know how patients feel there," she says. "And physicians don't always recognize just how important that visit is to the patient."

To make your practice's atmosphere a special experience, Walker suggests doing a variety of things: improving the atmosphere by décor, amenities such as coffee or soft drinks, communication and staff empathy for the patients.

For instance, set up a workstation with a computer and phone for adults; for children, a computer with games. "Many patients have things to do during the day that can't get done while they're waiting at the doctorís office," notes Walker.

Agrees Paul C. Collins, MD, who installed a computer with a Healthwise KnowledgebaseTM, a software that provides orthopaedic knowledge updates, helps patients understand diagnosed conditions, medical tests, medications and treatment. Patients can do searches and print information while they wait. "Sitting and interacting with a database that concerns a patient's problem is a whole new paradigm," explains Dr. Collins, "It starts your visit with them in the reception area and compliments their intelligence. The patient is more educated about their condition-especially when it teaches them some anatomy. This makes you look pretty smart, too. And it's much more informative than having a fish tank in the room that doesn't say much about your office-especially if one of the fish is dead."

The vendor provides the free software, but the practice must invest in a computer and printer.

And if you have any fears that your patient will be "afraid" of the computer, Dr. Collins says, "guess again." "Senior citizens are very intrigued by the system. The average patient who gets on the Healthwise system will very much appreciate your thoughtfulness in having such a resource in the office. Everyone wants to maximize the use of his or her time while sitting in the waiting room. Looking at magazines, even if they are up-to-date, is not considered good time management."

Walker says it's important to check reading materials placed in your reception area so "they're appropriate as to what you want your practice to be perceived as and not out-dated."

Here's some other tips provided by Walker to make your patient's waiting room experience an enjoyable one: Place a jigsaw puzzle on a table for patient participation or other game boards. Provide cookbooks and recipe cards. Post pictures, descriptions and background of physicians in brochures in attractive display cases. Hang baby pictures of physicians and staff; then ask patients to guess who's who. Or, have patients fill out patient reminder cards or fill out a problem list on their own medical history.

Basically, Walker says the "waiting room experience" should give patients a pleasant memory of their office visit.

But even if the ambience is great, make sure your staff treats the patients with "humanness and empathy," explains Walker. "If the staff doesn't do this, then the patients perceive it. They'll feel they're just a number, a diagnosis-not an individual."

How your staff interfaces with a patient goes "beyond smiling and being nice," notes Walker. "They need to understand that customer service is an integral part of the care delivery. It's not a separate project. It's part of everything they do-whether it's on the phone or in person with a patient."

Your staff should greet the patient with enthusiasm and by name at arrival, suggests Walker. "Let patients feel recognized and expected," she says. "Do not ask the patient to provide information over and over again and in front of other patients."

She also stresses "protecting the patient's privacy and confidentiality." "Many times, conversations can be overheard by patients, as they check in or wait for the doctor. If the staff asks a patient some personal questions, be sure the whole waiting room is not privy to their conversation."

Any delays should also be immediately communicated to the patient. "Some practices give beepers to patients to allow them to go shopping or have coffee or lunch," says Walker. "But you have to be pretty organized to do that."

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