Designing the Physician Office Experience

I think the world of my doctor.  When I visit for an annual checkup, or if I need to see her, I find her to be warm, engaging and a terrific listener. I also appreciate her approach to medicine – she’ll write a prescription or order a test, as needed, but she'll also suggest dietary supplements or an app for mindfulness and meditation, in an effort toward more natural ways of health and healing.

Like all doctors, her office has a reception desk and waiting room, so recently, while I was waiting to see her, I began to process how Design Thinking could improve a visit to the doctor’s office.  As a Design Thinking consultant, someone who helps businesses grow by focusing on customer empathy and prototyping innovative concepts, I couldn’t help but to envision changes.  We've become an experience-centric society, and what could be more human-focused than a visit to the doctor?

How do we make a visit more “customer friendly”?  First, let's start with the aesthetics.  Have you ever visited a plastic surgeon’s office?  The waiting area is nicely decorated with attractive furniture and real art on the walls.  One doctor I know has a large saltwater fish tank as a calming centerpiece in the waiting area, and another has a sizable aviary full of finches.  Offices like these feel warmer and more hospitable than ones with industrial furniture and a flat screen tuned to the “Medical Channel”.

How are you usually greeted at a doctor’s office?  I’ve experienced the “sign-in clipboard” and wait to be called, the self-check-in on the ipad-on-a-stand, and of course, the occasional personal greeting with eye-contact from reception staff.  I realize doctor’s office staff have a lot of paper and files to process, but wouldn't it be worth the investment in training personnel to make sure patients are greeted warmly, maybe even by name, if they're known?  Since most everyone makes appointments to see doctors, it can be easily referenced as to who will be coming into the office on a specific day - A simple “welcome to our office” or “welcome back”, as appropriate, could score points if the staff is simply attentive.  Some water bottles in a small refrigerator, or even a Keurig machine for coffee could be a nice touch (My dentist has fresh baked cookies in his waiting room, though I thought the reason for my visits is to PREVENT cavities).

As for paperwork that needs completion, there are plenty of ways to improve the customer experience.  For new patients, needed forms (or a link to a secure portal) could be emailed days ahead of a first visit.  For returning patients, provide an electronic list of illnesses previously reported and/or current medications, and ask what has changed – Re-answering questions makes patients feel like their doctors or nurses don’t really know them and do not value their time.  Recently, I was handed an iPad at a specialist’s office which asked for reconfirmation of information from my last visit, and an offer to swipe my credit card to be stored for future charges – and I felt like this doctor was operating (pardon the pun) in the 21st Century.

Lastly, doctors are notorious for running late in meeting with patients.  Doctors, by nature, tend to be empathetic people, so this is one area where they really need to put themselves in their customers shoes.  Often, patients are taking time away from work or pulling kids out of school to visit doctors, so it’s frustrating for them to sit for more than 15 minutes in a waiting room.  This problem can begin to be solved by performing in-depth data analysis on how the practice runs and determining a realistic average time per visit metric.  I recognize that in today’s insurance environment doctors need to maximize the number of patients they see in a day, but appointment scheduling should be time-frame realistic if they want “satisfied customers”.

It’s ironic to ask doctors to focus on how their patients feel after a visit, but with the use of empathy and a little Design Thinking, their patients could feel happier, or at least highly pleased with their visits.  It’s said when people are healthier they’re happier – maybe with a customer-centric focus, a little happiness can lead to better health.

R. Troy Atlas is President of Stonehill. Specializing in Design Thinking and operational optimization, Troy is a “recovering” CPA and former financial services executive who enjoys creating opportunities for innovation with solutions built on the principles of Design Thinking and customer empathy. Connect with him on LinkedIn or at