Today’s health care system has become so standardized that if a person in a medical office were magically transported to a medical office in another city, they would instantly recognize that they were still in a medical office. Our offices are now antiseptic, cold, and devoid of educational material and humanity. I believe that this can have an adverse impact on a physician’s ability to provide care to their patients.
When I built my first private practice office, I decided to design it so it reflected my personality, while simultaneously offering passive educational opportunities and entertainment for my patients.
The walls of my waiting room and exam rooms have been covered with an ever evolving display of newspaper articles, patient-appropriate medical journal articles, professional society patient educational publications, and personal writings, which I believe help advance my patients’ health.
I have posted information about the following: diabetes, diet, obesity, COVID-19; why it is important that patients tell their physicians when and why they are not taking their medicines; how to obtain those medicines at a lower cost; inexpensive medicines which might be able to be substituted for more expensive medicines; and many other topics.
The educational materials on the walls of my office clearly resonate with patients. It is not uncommon for me to walk into an exam room and encounter a patient who is taking a photograph of one or more articles.
Along with the educational information displayed on the walls of my office, I also hang items that reflect my interests, hobbies, and personality — all done in an attempt to improve physician-patient interaction.
For a period of time, some of the walls of my waiting room were covered with my wife’s oil paintings, ensconced in atypical wood frames that I designed and built. The presence of the pictures and frames resulted in many conversations between me and my patients that were outside the realm of traditional medical care — and thus served to humanize me and to strengthen our bond.
Today, one of my exam rooms is covered with record albums I accumulated in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Almost every patient between the ages of 45 and 75 that enters that room will make a comment about how they too had some of these albums. When it is a patient who I am meeting for the first time, this non-medical “first contact” helps to establish a less clinical, more empathic relationship between us and may facilitate the subsequent clinical conversation.
For a large portion of my career in private practice, I also brought my pets into the office. My African gray parrot had a cage in the waiting room, and my two dogs wandered between the exam rooms and my personal office. When the animals were not present, my established patients made it very clear to me or my staff that they preferred when the animals were present.
Occasionally a patient would bring their parents, friends, or children to their office visit so they could meet the animals. The resultant conversations between me and my patients about the animals further humanized the physician-patient bond in a way that is not likely to occur in a sterile work environment. As I knew some patients would prefer that I not have the dogs in my office, I prominently displayed a sign in the waiting room stating that we would unquestionably and immediately lock up the dogs upon request.
Some physicians would argue that it is unprofessional to decorate the walls of their office or have pets hanging around. One hospital administrator explicitly told me that "patients prefer the traditional sterile, hospital-like environment.” My interactions with my patients have demonstrated that the assumption that patients prefer traditional, sterile medical offices is woefully antiquated, and may even be even harmful.
I believe that today’s institutional medical office decor promotes an artificial distinction and an unnecessary barrier between patient and physician, which results in the standardization and depersonalization of health care. This depersonalization may adversely affect a physician’s ability to obtain an accurate medical history or to properly take care of their patient.
I am certain that my atypical exam rooms and waiting rooms are appreciated by the vast majority of my patients, and I would encourage other physicians to experiment with the decor in their offices.
Physicians need to take back control of the health care system from the health care institutions which have so warped the delivery of health care in the U.S. Decorating our offices with educational materials and items that reflect our personality is not only easy and inexpensive, it also helps to promote health care education, improve physician-patient rapport, and, perhaps most importantly, is often appreciated by patients.
Do you believe medical offices should reflect a personal touch? Share your opinions in the comments below!
Dr. Zwerling is a practicing endocrinologist who laments the state of health care in the U.S. and the fact that physicians have lost control of the practice of medicine to the consolidated health care institutions, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and Health Information Technology companies (CHIPHIT complex). He also has an interest in health information technology, woodworking, and politics. He blogs periodically at IHaveAnIdea.us.
Image by Nadezhda Fedrunova / Getty