Is your waiting room alienating your patients?

Most of the medical offices that I’ve visited make a great effort to look nice. The walls are attractive colors that coordinate with the furniture and carpeting. Little decorative doodads add some interest. I’ve been to one office that has gorgeous, hand-sewn quilts adorning every common area…wow. And the receptionist’s desk typically has lovely, freshly cleaned sliding glass doors. Sometimes they sport seasonal window stickies in a rainbow of colors.

But then there are the signs.

I’m referring to the various important messages for patients that are printed on copier paper and stuck all over the place with scotch tape. Some are dog-eared because they’ve been on the wall for so long. Each sign’s message is typically in a different font and font size. Sometimes with misspelled words. And nearly always written in a tone that suggests that patients are SO ANNOYING.

I understand why this happens. Patients CAN be annoying. We miss appointments and forget to bring our insurance cards. We’re demanding and want immediate service. Some patients out there are trying to commit fraud or “work the system” in other ways. It’s lousy.

The real problem

The problem is this: when you wallpaper your office with signs admonishing patients that they’d better do this and better not do that, you’re also scolding the folks who are honest, on time, and patient with you. In some cases, you’re holding them to a higher standard that you can meet yourself (if your practice’s physicians never run late, my apologies). Honestly, it comes across as rude.

Is that really the tone you want to set in your waiting area? Surely you’d agree that adversarial language does not lay the foundation for a good relationship.

You might say, “But the relationship is between the doctor and the patient. The administrative staff are different.”

NO. No, no, no.

Your patients will evaluate their total experience. If the physician is a wonderful, caring, dedicated genius, some of them will cut you some slack. They might even cut you a lot of slack. But the other patients are out there telling their friends and neighbors that they didn’t like the way they were treated.

So how do you get your important messages across without alienating your customers?

Another approach

First, consider the other communication vehicles you already have in place, and incorporate important information into them instead of on a flyer. Here are a few possibilities:
 • Post the information on your web site.
 • Create a separate brochure (NOT your marketing brochure!) that describes your office policies.
 • Include the essential information in a document that your patient will acknowledge with a signature. It can be part of the routine appointment paperwork.

These options get the information off your walls and into a more appropriate location. That’s the first step.

The next step is to refine the language. Begin by asking a few trusted people to read the information as if they were patients. A good place to start is your sales/marketing person, because this person is already geared toward pleasing potential customers. It’s not a good idea to rely on your receptionist, practice manager, billers, etc., because they’re more immersed in the practice’s mindset and unlikely to interpret the information from a patient’s perspective. An even better option is to hire someone with copywriting expertise to help out. But even informal feedback is valuable.

We can say the same thing many different ways; your goal is to communicate in such a way that patients understand why you are making the request, and why it will be in their best interest to comply. (Hint: Avoid the phrase “In order to serve you better.” It’s overused and doesn’t really say anything.) Remember that the written word is often perceived as harsher than the spoken word, so be cautious about using the same language you do when speaking directly to the patient. Strive to make the language reflect the image you want for your medical practice.

Better language in action

Consider a couple of examples. Instead of this:
“Appointments are scheduled for every 15 minutes. If you have additional questions for the doctor, please schedule a second appointment.”

Try something like this:
“In order to give Dr. Z plenty of time to spend with each patient, we schedule her appointments very carefully. When you schedule an appointment, please let us know if you have special concerns that you’d like to discuss, and we’ll be happy to allow for extra time with the doctor.”

Here’s another. Instead of this:
“Patients must present their insurance card at every visit. If you do not have your card, your appointment will be rescheduled.”

Try this:
“To ensure that you are not a victim of insurance fraud, we ask that you bring your insurance card to every visit. If you do not have your card, we may ask for two forms of identification to help us verify the information we have on file for you. If you prefer, we will be happy to reschedule your appointment.”

Ultimately, what you’re looking for is consistency between the pre-exam experience and the actual physician interaction. Don’t allow an unwelcoming waiting area undermine the warm, compassionate care that your patients receive.