This month, PBS released the documentary The Waiting Room, providing a 24-hour window into the ER waiting room at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. “We’re a public hospital, we’re the safety net in society, the institution of last resort for so many people,” says one of the doctors during the film.

The 60-plus minute film is a sobering view of the challenges emergency providers face today, as the staff treats everything from a child with strep throat to multiple gunshot victims, while also wrestling with high patient volumes (241 treated on this day) and a lack of space to house everyone.

Patients’ struggles are also caught on camera, from concern about loved ones and ongoing pain to frustration over long wait times, lack of insurance, and mounting medical bills.  

From a design perspective, I couldn’t help but watch this documentary and wonder how design might help ease any of these situations and struggles. The waiting room’s basic layout of rows of chairs serves its purpose but it leaves little to be desired. Patients are seen reaching across aisleways to hold hands in prayer, there’s little space for private cell phone conversations, and the buzz of noise can get pretty loud at times.

“If you can’t hear your name, you’re not going to get service,” a bubbly triage nurse announces. “Please talk softly, but keep talking.”

This hospital stands in stark contrast to some of the amenity-rich projects we’ve seen lately, but surely there’s a middle ground, especially with the growing acknowledgement of the benefits of artwork, natural daylight, furniture, and other design elements to improve patient experiences and outcomes.

Over the coming weeks, I’m going to be exploring the topic of waiting room design for a trend report in Healthcare Design magazine. I’d love to hear your perspectives and thoughts on what’s relevant—and realistic—in today’s marketplace.

How is the role of the waiting room changing, as some facilities replace traditional-sized waiting rooms with smaller, simplified areas? And how do the expectations change when you’re designing overseas?  You can share your thoughts below or reach me at