Cosmetic procedure: Your office may need a makeover

The way your office looks can play a role in how patients perceive you as a doctor. Here is advice from experts on how to improve the look and feel of your office.

By Larry Stevens amednews correspondent — Posted Feb. 12, 2007

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Next time you drive past your city's bus terminal, take a peek inside. If the spare décor, stark lighting and single-line seating arrangement remind you of your office's waiting room, it could be time for an update.

Improving the look of your practice isn't just about aesthetics. It's also about how you are perceived as a physician.

"Patients aren't usually sophisticated enough to know if you're a good doctor. So they base their decisions on cues that they can judge. And the primary one is how your office looks," says Mark Scholz, MD, medical director at Prostate Oncology Specialists in Marina del Rey, Calif.

Dr. Scholz's recently redone office includes "some juice in the wallpaper" and a selection of comfortable upholstered chairs arranged to allow patients different seating options.

While Scholz decided to create an entirely new office, there are several options for doctors wanting to improve the look and feel of their waiting rooms and other areas without a major budget-busting overhaul.

Where to start

Practices interested in redesigning a little at a time should consider carefully how best to prioritize their projects. Experts say that if one element -- walls, floors or furniture -- is particularly in need of replacement, groups should start with the obvious problem area.

But if no one element sticks out like a sore thumb, Phil Giuntoli, leader of Seattle-based design firm CollinsWoerman's health care sector, suggests beginning with a cold, hard look at the walls.

"The easiest and cheapest thing to change is paint color or wallpaper. Often, color is an indicator of when renovations were last made," Giuntoli says.

Is the color as bright as it was when it was first painted or papered? Does the paint color or wallpaper or border pattern reflect the image you want to portray? Or does it seem hackneyed, generic or old fashioned? A faded color or old-fashioned, tired pattern not only looks bad, it gives the impression of an office that can't afford to refurbish as needed, and that might imply to patients that the doctors are not competent, Giuntoli says.

After sprucing up the walls, Giuntoli recommends investing in new furniture, table lamps and art. Next, consider changing floor covering by purchasing new carpet, tile or linoleum or refinishing wooden floors. (Giuntoli often recommends carpet tile because it allows you to keep the flooring longer, because you can replace just the tiles that become faded or stained).

Finally, while it is sometimes a little more expensive, Giuntoli recommends a change to the overhead lighting, moving from stark, industrial lights to more modern fixtures. But if a major electrical upgrade is not in the budget this year, Giuntoli says that even a simple replacement to a softer bulb sometimes can alter the feel of a space.

Giuntoli and other designers point out that in many offices, the reception area may be due for a low-cost but important upgrade. While some alterations to the check-in station might require structural changes to the office, sometimes just installing or lengthening the size of panels at each receptionist station will increase patients' sense of privacy and comfort when discussing private medical information.

Paula Crowley, CEO at Wilmington, Del.-based design firm Anchor Health Properties, takes a more strategic than tactical approach to prioritizing redesign projects and looks beyond the waiting room to other areas of concern.

"Sit down with the office manager and possibly other staff members and discuss what they want to accomplish with the practice, and then the design priorities should follow from that," she says.

That could mean sprucing up common patient areas, or even fixing the employee work space and break room areas. "There is no pat answer to the order in which you make changes. The key is to make thoughtful decisions based on the most pressing needs as opposed to knee-jerk reactions," Crowley says.

One thoughtful thing a practice can do is offer a variety of seating options, she says. While seats certainly could be color- and possibly texture-coordinated, they should be of different sizes, shapes and hardness. In addition, arrange seats so people have a choice of seating configuration. If there's room, "cluster them and create barriers" allowing some people to get a sense of privacy, says Leighann Jacobi of Phoenix-based Jacobi Interiors. She rarely recommends couches, because most people don't like to sit so close to others.

While exam rooms are intended to be functional rather than decorative, there is some room for innovation. "There are a lot of new cleanable materials which can liven up exam rooms," Jacobi says. For example, an office with wood floors in the waiting area may continue that theme in exam rooms with very realistic-looking faux wooden floors made of linoleum.

Groups also often prioritize with the goal of investing in design features that won't have to be changed if a complete makeover is implemented in the future.

In general, most designers say this is an often achievable goal but never a certainty. "Anything from a previous office redesign is potentially reusable during future renovations, but it depends on the eventual design goals," Giuntoli says.

The best scenario is when doctors know they eventually will do a complete remodeling. That way they can plan for it when making smaller changes in the years before the overall job. Still, Giuntoli says the downside to any partial job is that when it becomes time for the complete redesign, it may be unavoidable that some previous design changes be torn out.

Let personality show

If you're planning a redesign, either gradual or complete, don't look for formulaic solutions, experts say. A perfect wall color for one office may be too loud for another practice.

Designers say that when physicians think about design ideas, they should look at their own personalities and the personality they want to project to their patients.

"The first thing is to understand how style fits in with the personality of the doctors as well as the personality of the primary demographics of patients," Jacobi says. Giving an office a distinctive personality can help make the patient experience less sterile, she says.

Eric S. Berger, MD, a New York laser skin care specialist, has his office express not only his personality but also his specific interests. He puts personal knickknacks in a display case and, being a blues musician, he keeps a guitar in his office. "I want my patients to know something about me as a person as soon as they walk into the office," he says.

In terms of design fitting in with patients, Jacobi recommends that if the practice treats a lot of older patients, some of whom may have poor eyesight, choose more vibrant colors over pastels. Busy executives may prefer more calming colors such as blue, green, silver or grey. Women visiting gynecologists may prefer soft floral designs. Young pediatric patients like bright colors, often with water or jungle scenes.

The type of wall covering even can be based on the practice's name, playing a role in brand recognition and retention. For example, Steven Abelowitz, MD, founder of Coastal Kids Pediatrics in Newport Beach, Calif., latched onto the "Coastal" part of the eight-physician group's name. He decided to create an ocean theme, which includes water-scenes wallpaper, a large jellyfish sculpture, and simulated portholes.

Experts say that if you're contemplating a complete facelift of your office or building a new office, that creates a perfect opportunity to rethink décor around your office's strategy.

Pediatrician Shelly Senders, MD, is building a new office in University Heights, Ohio, for his five-physician practice. Dr. Senders wants to encourage his patients to remain with him until they are 23. Because some of his patients will be getting married and having children near that age, "these older teens and young adults represent the future of our practice," he says.

When Dr. Senders designed his new office, he decided to dispense with traditional sick- and well-child rooms for two reasons. First, parents with sick children do not want to be in the sick room. More important, it allows him to build two very different waiting rooms: one that caters to younger children and the other for older children and young adults.

The room for young children features a 25-foot tree house with three levels. The room for older children and young adults will include a more muted adult design, computers and work carrels. "It would be hard to keep a 21-year-old young woman happy in the children's waiting room as we designed it," Dr. Senders says. The dual rooms are integral to his strategy of maintaining a relationship with his patients into early adulthood.

There are a lot of considerations to juggle when deciding on ways to upgrade office décor. Many physicians employ the services of a designer, especially for major projects. But those designers say you don't have to hire them to upgrade your décor. A few low-cost upgrades can go a long way toward sprucing up your office and improving your image in the minds of some patients.

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Worth the wait

The waiting room at the Floyd and Delores Jones Cancer Institute at Seattle's Virginia Mason Hospital had devolved into something of a cluttered jungle. The dramatic redesign followed a "Garden of Life" theme incorporating water, wood and stone elements. Alcoves off the main seating area include a meditation room and a cafe.

Lights: Soft lighting from "canned" fixtures helps create a calm, soothing atmosphere.

Wall art: Oversized wall art simulates the feel of bay windows.

Paint: Buttery-yellow paint complements the garden theme.

Carpet: Sound-absorbing carpet in earth colors transitions into wood-grain vinyl sheeting throughout the offices.

Chairs: Built-in seating areas maximize the space in the long and narrow room, while freestanding chairs increase grouping flexibility.

Magazines: Informational pamphlets and computer access replace outdated magazines, decreasing the focus on waiting time.

Source: CollinsWoerman.

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