The Weight of Waiting: Redesigning Waiting Spaces

Waiting can carry a lot of weight no matter where you are and for who/what you’re waiting. This is certainly true for clinic waiting spaces that are historically cold and sterile, and statistically proven to be stress-inducing. Yet redesigning them is complex because each space has its own purpose (i.e., emergency, maternity, geriatric, radiology, recovery, etc) and its own needs to fill among patients, families, and providers.

The waiting room is actually where I have my most memorable clinical experiences. My doctor’s waiting room is fairly ugly based on a look-good scale. Chairs aren’t anything to write home about, nor are the magazines. There is no TV, no music, no food or drinks available, and no waterfall. The first time I signed in with the receptionist, my doctor walked behind the desk, without glass, and said hello. After reading a magazine for about 15 minutes, my doctor walked across the waiting area holding a chart and said, “Hi Carey, come on back.”

This simple case shows how small actions and behaviors shape mindsets and commitments to the healing process. From a material design perspective, there is nothing about this space that stands out. But from a humanistic design perspective, there is a powerful culture built into the very way people use this space that quickly makes waiting, comfortable. How should people feel when they wait? What should they do when they wait?

Redesigning waiting spaces has received much attention in part because this space constitutes an important part of health care culture for everyone. A number of successful cases have turned to the arts for inspiration on designing health facilities that begin the healing process when patients and families arrive. The JAMA article, “The Arts of Healing,”  underscores how certain environments can enhance health and healing by taking into account the ways in which color, light, sound, nature and texture affect the senses. The ultimate objective is to have an entirely new basis for the theory of architectural design based on human responses to the environment.

Ways in which waiting spaces can be redesigned to reduce patients’ anxiety while they wait for example range from comfortable seating and healthy food in the vending machines to music and bamboo floors that can be cleaned with only soap and water. But any of these design choices are context dependent. They also gloss over a central part of any design: culture. The culture of a waiting room is not something the clinic has; it is something a clinic is.

One place that has taken the idea of culture and human centered design seriously, is the new Bloomberg Children’s Center in Baltimore. When describing the massive project, artist Spencer Finch, working in collaboration with architects said, “from the beginning we were thinking about glass as an analogue for water, how glass and water behave in similar ways, and what we could do with glass so that it’s always changing.” He went on to say, “it’s a big building and it can be intimidating, but water has a certain softness and welcoming aspect to it.” The result is a shimmering hospital exterior that captures the light of the sky, thereby allowing the building to change in sync with the environment and the Baltimore light.

Keen on using materials that expand on the idea of nature, the new Colorado Children’s Hospital in Denver created sculptures for the entrance to guide patients and families out of one of the most basic elements found in the natural world: clay. In building a healing hospital, Bloomberg Children’s Center also wanted to create a learning hospital, displaying books and including a library. Gardens also serve as places of orientation, respite and rejuvenation. Lavender, rosemary, magnolia and rose were specifically chosen due to their ancient associations with healing. To further enhance the healing process through art and architecture, 70 artists worked in collaboration with a team of architects to display 500 original pieces of art around the facility.

Art and the senses also played a role in Neenan’s project with Pediatric Associates of the Northwest, who recently redesigned their waiting and working area according to the principle of a “community garden” to communicate the very real nurturing of future community members through pediatrics. Murals, prints, furniture and moldings reflect water, earth and plant life all woven with messages of what it means to grow healthily. The result is a positive, life affirming space for those who wait and those who work in the clinic.

As you can see, these clinical examples demonstrate that no matter where or how long you wait, the goal of the space is the same: to heal and comfort. So when rethinking waiting spaces, don’t just consider the physical elements. Build a commitment to human centered design that puts more care and more feeling into a central process of healthcare: waiting.

What kinds of experiences do your waiting spaces produce?

With thanks to jeffk, epicmoments, creating in the dark and Creativity103 for their images.




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