Using Design to Create a Waiting Room where Patients Do More than Wait


No one likes being asked to wait. And nowhere is waiting more painful than at the doctor’s office. Already stressed by thoughts of the visit, exam or procedure ahead, time spent in the waiting room often forms the lens through which patients view their entire visit.

For one health care executive, the waiting room should be about more than waiting.

“Traditionally the waiting room is a sterile environment where people wait to go back and see their physician, but I’ve always seen the waiting room as a dynamic space, an educational space,” said Michael Crawford, chief of staff for Unity Health Care, the largest network of community health centers in Washington, D.C.

That’s why Crawford jumped at the chance to work with the design team from Gensler on a research-based design intervention that included a look at the effects of changing the furniture arrangement in the waiting room on patient communication. Sunbrella® Contract funded the research project.

Crawford posited that patients who talk with each other in the waiting room about their health concerns not only stood a chance of Improving their health outcomes, but could also decrease their perceptions of wait times.

The design team took a two pronged approach to making the Unity Brentwood waiting room more dynamic: They created a new furniture arrangement, and they included artwork and design elements reflective of the Brentwood community.

Conversation areas in healthcare waiting room

A Furniture Arrangement to Encourage Conversation

The design team replaced the traditional health center waiting room furniture arrangement — rows of seats arranged around low tables — for something reminiscent of the home.

The old arrangement consisted of rows of connected chairs arranged in rectangle formation around low tables, and a row of chairs along one wall. A bench seat topped a low bookshelf on the opposing wall.

The new furniture arrangement created smaller clusters of seating around sofa-like benches with high backs and used color blocking to further define more intimate spaces. It enabled patients to sit in groups and face one another at a close proximity for conversation at natural voice levels. The wider variety of seating types from individual chairs to sofa-like bench seats to stools and long bench seats provided more choice in seating.

The new furniture also encouraged patients to move the chairs and stools, if needed, to make conversations easier.

The team observed people using the new waiting room to test the hypothesis: Will furniture arrangement affect communication? They found a 100 percent increase in communication between patients in the new waiting room compared to the pre-renovation waiting room.

Child in front of fabric wall

Community Involvement Creates Early Buy-in for the Design

The design team involved patients and staff in the design process and that had a direct effect on the resulting design. They conducted a staff survey and held events with patients and staff during which participants voted on color palettes and discussed fabric pattern preferences. During the events, they also talked about the Brentwood neighborhood’s history and future and what the health center means to the community.

In the end, the team proved the hypothesis: Community engagement in the design process impacts design solutions. The new waiting room uses a color palette and upholstery patterns that a majority of community event participants favored.

During the community event, a patient noted that the old waiting room was nice, but that it could be more insightful. That’s exactly what the design created: a space infused with meaning.

“Folks really thought their input was heard and valued,” Crawford said.

The new design includes a macramé hanging with a pattern inspired by a map of the Brentwood community. A quilt wall incorporates fabrics in colors and patterns favored by patients and includes quotes they created at the poetry station during the community event.

Children playing in doctor's waiting room

The design also went a long way to proving the hypothesis: An enhanced waiting room will decrease perceived wait times. When the health center reported a 25 percent decrease in complaints after the renovation, they made a connection to design elements such as the artwork, color palette and fabric patterns, which provide moments of interest and reflection.

“Maybe there’s some discovery happening in the quilt wall, maybe there’s an element of surprise when they watch the natural light reflect on the crystal in the macramé,” said Tama Duffy Day, a Gensler principal designer and health and wellness practice area leader. “There’s something about the space that improves the patients’ expectation.”