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A major part of health care is waiting, and prior research shows that the experience is often stressful and can impact the perception of overall quality of care. However, there is a great design opportunity to reduce anxiety through positive distractions, to facilitate education and to prime patients for the best possible health care experience.

The Center for Health Design’s Knowledge Repository includes numerous studies around the link between waiting room design and health care outcomes. Three recent articles are highlighted here.

While waiting is difficult for all of us, it can be especially challenging for our smallest patients. Research out of China by Qi and colleagues looks at specific design factors that support a positive experience for children and their parents in the pediatric waiting room. They found strong links between several design factors and satisfaction, including functional layout (e.g., large, open waiting rooms that provide space for privacy and dedicated space for strollers), flow organization (e.g., easy access to bathrooms and clear wayfinding), environmental details (e.g., views of nature) and supporting facilities (e.g., comfortable seating). Supporting facilities seemed to have the greatest impact on overall satisfaction with the waiting space.

Waiting rooms often are full of health information, but do patients notice? And what form of information is most effective? A study by Penry Williams and colleagues asks these questions and looks at how patients engage with content like televised health education while waiting for their appointment. Even though nearly everybody is glued to their mobile device while passing the time in a waiting room, this study found that patients still tend to engage with magazines, pamphlets and other educational content around them in the waiting room. The authors note that the patient engagement is mostly passive; they seem to notice the messages, but they are not necessarily following up on what they learned in subsequent conversations with providers.

What are some of the other passive activities in the waiting room that might affect our health care experience? A literature review by Lai and Amaladoss takes a neurobiological approach to understand the effect of listening to background music in the waiting room. In this study, the researchers focus on how different types of music in the waiting room affect the patient experience. While the authors found a paucity of reliable evidence for hard conclusions, they suggest that Western classical music — or other music with a slow tempo (around 60 beats per minute), consonant harmonic characteristics and predictable dynamics — may be the best option in the waiting room for reducing anxiety. The authors also found that giving patients control over the music selection (e.g., via headphones) can improve the experience.

The waiting room has a captive audience, and thoughtful waiting room design has the potential to set the stage for the clinical interactions that follow. To read more on how design can impact the experience of waiting, as well as many other topics related to health care design, readers should log on to The Center for Health Design’s Knowledge Repository. 

Research used for this column

The following citations from The Center for Health Design’s Knowledge Repository of health care design resources were used by the author when writing this column:

  • Y. Qi et al., “Evidence-Based Design for Waiting Space Environment of Pediatric Clinics — Three Hospitals in Shenzhen as Case Studies,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, no. 22 (2021).
  • C. Penry Williams et al., “Patient and Clinician Engagement with Health Information in the Primary Care Waiting Room: A Mixed Methods Case Study,” Journal of Public Health Research 8, no. 1 (2019): 1476.
  • J. C.-Y. Lai and N. Amaladoss, “Music in Waiting Rooms: A Literature Review,” HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal, 2021, in press.

About this column

“Design Discoveries” highlights research from The Center for Health Design’s Knowledge Repository, a user-friendly library of health care design resources. This research effort is supported by the American Society for Health Care Engineering, the American Institute of Architects, the Academy of Architecture for Health Foundation and the Facility Guidelines Institute.