Patient-Centered Care Starts in the Waiting Room

Picture a hospital waiting room. What comes to mind? A rough, carpeted floor and vinyl chairs with daytime cable droning in the background? A few children's toys, dog-eared brochures and women's magazines?

Why should waiting rooms be cold, boring places?

Waiting rooms tend to be a low priority for hospitals and physicians, who are primarily concerned about quality of care. Yet for patients and their families, this is often where they spend the most time.

Patients in waiting rooms are often nervous, anxious, depressed or sick. The environment where they wait anywhere from a few minutes to several hours will either add to their stress or help relieve it. Whatever feelings are created in the waiting room follow patients into their appointments and, either positively or negatively, affect their interactions with staff, nurses and physicians.

Instead of being seen as dead space, waiting rooms should accomplish two basic objectives.

1. They should put patients at ease.
The time patients spend in the waiting room will deeply impact their overall experience of visiting your clinic. The purpose of a waiting room should be to make patients feel comfortable.

Patients should feel like everyone has their best interests at heart from the moment they walk in the door. People often bring family, friends or kids with them to the office, so it's important to consider them in the waiting room experience as well.

2. They should provide education.
Having a captive audience means this is the time to offer valuable health information to educate patients on their conditions and medications. Educational materials in a waiting room should prepare patients for their appointments and make a lasting impression.

Replacing cable
One of the biggest killers of waiting room ambiance is daytime cable. Throwing a TV in a corner and letting soap operas, courtroom dramas, news or weather dominate the backdrop is meant to keep patients engaged and prevent them from constantly checking the clock. But as smartphones increasingly put entertainment and information at our fingertips, cable TV in waiting rooms has become completely irrelevant. It's background noise.

Instead, administrators should seek out entertainment options that are up-to-date, relevant and in line with their values. 

Here are three options for replacing cable TV in waiting rooms that meet those goals:

1. Patient-focused educational programming
There are many companies that offer programming for waiting rooms at varying degrees of quality, entertainment and educational value It's hard to beat this type of media for inspiring and engaging patients.

In selecting a service to provide programming, be sure to ask how much say the clinic will have in programming selection. Ask whether the company creates its own programs and whether there are any hidden costs for installation, removal or maintenance. The company should constantly update its offerings and services, and the clinic should have a direct line to an account manager who can help with programming.

2. Informational computers
Several companies also provide informational computers for waiting rooms. These computers can be an interactive and engaging source of health information for clients. They can run offline or online with CDs or websites, and specific websites can be highlighted while others are blocked.

3. Literature
Most waiting rooms have popular women's and parenting magazines, but why not take your waiting room literature to the next level? Some people prefer reading over watching TV. Providing medical journals or educational magazines that are interesting and relevant to the clinic's purpose can engage patients on another level. Instead of offering simplified brochures, provide authentic research articles. Invest in high-quality subscriptions. Patients will appreciate it.

Of course, these options can also be used simultaneously. Whether you choose one or all, be sure the waiting room offerings match its audience and meet the goals of the practice.

Waiting rooms, like healthcare overall, are becoming increasingly patient-focused. Waiting rooms should be warm, inviting spaces that create a pleasant experience.

Think of waiting rooms as the first impression of your hospital or clinic. You only get one chance.

Matthew Garms is the member outreach & marketing manager for ContextMedia, Inc., a mission-driven patient education company that partners with healthcare professionals to educate patients on how to manage their conditions through lifestyle changes. Matt is a huge Chicago sports fan and was constantly mistaken for Ralphie from "A Christmas Story" growing up. Connect with Matt onTwitter and Google +.

More Articles on Patient-Centered Care:
The Missing Ingredient in Patient Safety Efforts: Patients
Patient Safety Tool: Home Healthcare Blueprint for Excellence
PCORI Awards $114M for Patient-Centered Outcomes Research 

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