There I sat, waiting to have my blood drawn. Sitting with me were a young boy with his mom, an elderly woman in a wheelchair accompanied by her daughter, a preteen girl sharing a seat with her mother, and many others. We were all there for the same purpose but were in our own worlds, isolated from each other. As for me, I was absorbed in my book, pretending that I was alone. But just then, an elderly man sat down. He immediately began talking to the couple next to him, who smiled politely but didn’t really engage. Undeterred, the man asked the young boy sitting with his mother, “Do you know what one eye said to the other eye?” The boy looked at him blankly but this didn’t stop the man, who was intent on connecting. “There’s something that smells between us!” The man beamed as a smile came to the boy’s face. Gleefully, the man continued on his happiness spree. “Did you hear about the drunk crocodile that couldn’t use a phone?” he asked the woman in the wheelchair. “He was too crocked to dial!” he continued. At this point, we were all smiling and looking at each other warmly. The boy then repeated the joke about the two eyes to the woman in the wheelchair. A community was born.
To us, our offices, clinics and hospitals are home turf. We feel comfortable there, enjoy the security of our friends and colleagues, and have a job to do. Our patients, on the other hand, frequently feel out of place, worried, and isolated. So how can we help them build community, or at least feel more comfortable, in our waiting rooms and healthcare spaces?
Many offices have snacks, or at least coffee, tea, or water for patients to drink while they are waiting. Patients definitely appreciate this gesture. In our office, I notice conversations between patients in the waiting room that begin over the selection of tea.
Other offices play videos that can serve as a point of communal conversation. Talented receptionists know how to warmly greet patients so they feel welcome. In a small office, receptionists can help patients engage with each other by raising interesting topics for discussion. We can even consider wackier ideas, such as posting a riddle or trivia question each day – patients come to look forward to this tradition in an office and often strike up conversations about the answers with other patients waiting with them. In any office, it is crucial to let our receptionists know that making our patients feel welcome is an important part of their job if we want this to occur. Even the simple gesture of saying, “Welcome!” to every patient as they check in makes a difference.
As we are asked to pay more attention to patient satisfaction scores, most of which focus on aspects of the patient visit that are not under our control, we are wise to find simple ideas that contribute to a better experience for our patients. Making our waiting area a warmer, friendlier place is one easy way to improve our patients’ encounter, and that translates into a better experience for us, as well.