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Have you heard the expression, “Good things come to those who wait”? Do you agree with it? The term “wait” has negative connotations. Consider its definitions, according to

wait (weyt) verb

  1. to remain inactive or in a state of repose, as until something expected happens
  2. to be available or in readiness
  3. to remain neglected for a time
  4. to postpone or delay something

There are many sayings associated with waiting, and all seem to be unfavorable. “Wait for the other shoe to drop;” “Time and tide wait for no man;” “Don’t just sit there, do something;” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous line, “How much of human life is lost in waiting?”

A number of years ago, FedEx ran an advertisement with the headline, “Waiting is frustrating, demoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, annoying, time-consuming, and incredibly expensive.”

I agree. Waiting can be those things. But for healthcare institutions, waiting can also be a positive experience, if it’s planned properly.

As we all know, time spent waiting “comes with the territory” in healthcare settings. You wait to hear your name called before an appointment and to be seen by the physician, or you wait for a friend or loved one during his or her visit. The waiting, which can be highly emotional, can seem to go on and on. If you have anxiety about being in a healthcare setting, the waiting time may seem even longer.

What are some things we can include in our waiting room designs that can help foster a positive experience for all the people using the space?

Key elements
Let’s start with seating. There is a large cross-section of people using waiting rooms: different ages, different sexes, different illnesses, and different concerns. Each person has different needs. Design with flexibility in mind.

Since people like to congregate in different-sized groups, consider offering movable furniture that can be repositioned to fit the needs of each group. In addition, combine different sizes of seating. Not only will people find what suits them best, a variety of seating makes for a much more interesting space than if the seating is row after row of the same style.

By mixing lounge chairs, bariatric options, recliners, tables with chairs, and children’s seating—preferably from the same product line and sharing similar design elements—you can provide great options for users.

Keep in mind the constant use of these areas, as well. Be sure the specified materials and finishes will withstand the high levels of use and abuse they will receive.

It’s also smart to provide a variety of areas that can accommodate a wide range of activities. When an environment offers options and choices, it helps give users a sense of control over what they want to do as well as when and where they do it. Occupied time always seems to pass faster than unoccupied time.

For example, while waiting in a healthcare institution, some of us enjoy watching television and like to be more active and noisy. Some of us like to retreat, be quiet, and read. Some of us like to drink coffee and people-watch. Some of us like to talk to those we are with. Some of us like to catch up with our email or play games. Try to find a way to design the space so that specific areas can be carved out to accommodate various activities.

Wait! There’s more
Think about how a beautiful view can lift your spirits and change the way you feel, or how windows help you feel less isolated. To truly support a healing environment, be sure to consider providing access to nature. For example, a water feature can have a calming effect and can subtly help you to relax.

The walls, ceilings, and floors can have an impact, as well. An accent wall in a fun wallcovering can add interest to the space. Ceilings are often ignored, yet with bulkheads and accent paint, you can really change the feel of the space. Plus, with so many viable flooring options today—such as modular carpet, vinyl wood planks, luxury vinyl tile, porcelain ceramic tile, and even new interpretations of linoleum—your choices may be limited only by your creative spirit.

Be sure to plan for and locate toilet rooms, refreshments, drinking fountains, etc., nearby. These amenities are basic yet extremely important for those spending what can sometimes amount to hours waiting in a space.

Display features also add to a positive experience. People enjoy having things to look at while they wait. Plan for providing a display for brochures and other printed materials. You never know when information can spark a conversation between strangers and they end up supporting each other in their healthcare journey. Making connections can be a wonderful outcome of waiting.

Don’t forget lighting. Whether direct or indirect, it can significantly influence and improve the space. In addition, interesting interior finishes with varying patterns such as a mosaic tile wall mural or a wood sculpture can be fascinating for people to observe and enjoy.

Tying it all together
Last but not least, don’t underestimate the power of art in a space. Art can add a warm, non-institutional feel to the room, give people something to ponder, or help take the edge off a stressful situation.

A large hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, commissioned an artist to paint a nature-inspired wall mural in a waiting area on a patient floor. Every day, people could come by, watch the progress, and talk with the artist about his creation. He enjoyed the experience and reacted to things that happened to him while painting on-site.

One staff member came by each day and jokingly asked the artist why he wasn’t painting him into the mural. Eventually, the artist decided that the one person he was painting looked enough
like this staff member that he could change a few features in order to make it that staff member.

Another day, a physician asked why there wasn’t a golf course as part of the mural, so the artist painted a “lost” golf ball in the garden for her. The mural is a success not only because it is a great painting but also because it has a personal story to go with it, and each observer interprets the painting from his or her unique perspective.

A better outcome
Remember that although products are consumed, environments are experienced. Through careful planning and improving the environment that patients and visitors spend time in, you are able to help ensure that guests leave with a favorable impression of your facility and an overall positive experience. HCD

Mary Bamborough, IIDA, is a Senior Client Relations Consultant with Haworth and is president of the IIDA Michigan Chapter. She can be reached at