Waiting rooms play a big role in a facility’s first impression with patients and family members. That environment can also be a source of comfort and stress relief or a place where anxiety and agitation rise.

To improve that experience as part of overall patient satisfaction, some healthcare organizations are redesigning those spaces, moving away from rows of chairs and institutional settings to aesthetically pleasing spaces with amenities and multiple seating types to appeal to various preferences. Others have tried to eliminate the experience all together by employing self-rooming for patients or sub-waiting spaces outside individual departments or clinics.

“Getting rid of waiting is proving to be more difficult than expected,” said Mary Lindeman, health and wellness studio manager at CDH Partners Inc. “I think we can turn [waiting] on its head and make it an asset.”

To better understand how people wait and look for ways to improve the setting, Lindeman and colleagues Erin West, health and wellness studio partner, and Libby Laguta, a principal at the firm, conducted a direct observational study of waiting rooms in four different settings: family practice, specialty practice, urgent care, and emergency department. The speakers shared those results during the session, “The Art of Waiting,” at the Healthcare Design Expo & Conference in Houston.

During the on-site observations, one researcher recorded each time a seat in a waiting room was sat in and every 15 minutes noted the occupied seats in the layout. Researchers also observed if it was a child, woman, or man who sat in the chair to look for a correlation between gender and seating preference.

The speakers showed time-lapse mapping of each layout and discussed how different seating arrangements, including sociopetal (seating facing into a group) and sociofungal (seating arranged to promote seclusion by facing outwards), impacted seat utilization. Here are a few of their observations and conclusions:

  • Consider the guest—A majority of patients did not arrive alone, especially in the afternoon. Additionally, Laguta noted, “that person didn’t always go back to the exam room.”
  • Show me the door—The researchers observed that the majority of people wanted a view of the door to the exam area or the reception desk. Additionally, the team said that people tended to operate in a sociofungal format. For those facilities using sociopetal arrangements, Laguta said it was worth noting that those seat clusters will be used by one person until density in the room increases and then additional people will choose to sit here in the remaining seats in the cluster.
  • Sure, it’s a seat, but…—During the 10-day study, researchers noted adults sitting in kid chairs or on end tables (even when seats were still available), leaning rather than sitting on chairs, and one sick patient laying across three seats to rest before being called back to an exam room. Additionally, bariatric seats were often used by two people to sit together. The takeaway: Seats aren’t always used how you think.
  • Don’t forget to account for wheelchairs—In the emergency department waiting room, researchers noted that patients in wheelchairs increased the capacity of the 70-seat room by 15 percent. Design teams need to ensure they’re working wheelchairs into their layouts, including layouts that allow these patients and family members to comfortably sit next to each other.
  • Despite the presence of multiple televisions (some using closed captioning while others had the sound on), music, magazines, and refreshment stations, most people chose their cellphones as their preferred distraction device. This makes the location of outlets and charging stations a critical design detail.
  • Noting that more women than men were in the doctors’ offices, the researchers said they found no gender preference in seating.

In conclusion, the researchers said more research could further drill down into waiting room preferences, including isolating the chair type to see how that impacts activity and tracking patient ages to see if there’s a correlation between seat choice and age. They also agreed that with the high volume of family or friends accompanying patients on these visits, the waiting room isn’t going away any time soon.