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5 ways to make healthcare waiting rooms more functional and comfortable

May 06, 2018

By Ena Kenny

Designers can incorporate simple elements to make a trip to the hospital better for patients and their families

Wearing a heavy winter coat, a mother leads her two little children into a crowded hospital emergency waiting room. She hopes for positive news of her father-in-law, who was brought to hospital earlier that day with chest pain.

The design that went into that waiting room can make a big difference on that family’s anxiety levels. Have the designers included positive distractions, outdoor views to provide orientation within the building, and family-friendly seating to accommodate the children? Are there hooks for the family’s coats? Is there an outlet for the mom to charge her phone? Is Wi-Fi easily accessible, so she can email family members with updates?

Design matters.

Patterned glass screens provide separation from this waiting area to the corridor.

Dated healthcare waiting room rooms can add unnecessary stress to an already stressful situation. Designers should do their best to provide comfortable spaces for patients and their family members. Here are five must-haves when designing—or updating—healthcare waiting rooms:

  • More choice: Designers should incorporate furnishings and layouts that offer choice and flexibility—as opposed to simply lining up seating along the perimeter of a waiting space. People should have options. A family of four may need an intimate configuration, such as facing one another with room for a stroller, rather than sitting side-by-side. Or perhaps someone plans to sit alone with a book and a coffee. Where can they put personal belongings? Does that coffee have to sit on the floor?
  • Physical separations: It’s also a good idea to provide physical separations, such as colored, textured, or patterned glass screens. These screens offer infection control in areas like emergency rooms, while still being aesthetically pleasing. In other places, like an intensive care unit waiting area, they can provide privacy for grieving or stressed families.
  • Visual variety: People sometimes complain about sterile hospital environments. It may seem wise to keep colors soft to be safe, but color is highly subjective—and it must be considered along with all materials and finishes in a palette, as well as light levels. Make waiting areas bright and visually interesting, while ensuring a balance of neutrals and accent colors, and appropriate levels of contrast. Sufficient light levels and good contrast make spaces less challenging for those with low vision.
  • Appropriate materials: In terms of materials, it’s important to create a warm and friendly space, but finishes must also be easily cleanable and long lasting. For example, rather than plastic laminates for counters, which can fade, crack, or peel over time, a non-porous solid-surface counter will seem brand new for much longer. We try to avoid using materials that pose a health risk in terms of their manufacture, their disposal, or their performance in the intended application. We have long shifted away from vinyl upholstery toward finishes like polyurethane textiles and other PVC-free materials. Waiting areas can be noisy, so designers should also consider materials that are sound-absorbing, such as rubber-sheet flooring and perforated wood look ceilings, which are decorative as well as highly functional.

Waiting areas that are found in the same location from floor to floor can be differentiated with color.

  • Using technology for positive distraction: In the future, you’ll likely find everyone in waiting spaces immersed in technology—even more than they are today. We’re anticipating more sophisticated means of positive distraction. We have recently installed interactive LED light surfaces in a kids’ waiting area, and we’ve seen fantastic therapeutic art installations in hospital waiting areas and corridors.

We all find ourselves in waiting rooms—whether in healthcare or other settings. Next time you do, note whether these must-haves have been addressed.

  • Ena Kenny

    Ena creates supportive and patient-centered environments, placing an emphasis on design for mental health and senior-friendly design. Her imaginative work is grounded by her ability to draw out the needs and concerns of client user groups.

    Contact Ena
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