7 exam room hacks for a better clinical environment

Are we leveraging the potential therapeutic benefit of our surroundings? Space and exam room environment shouldn’t be an afterthought and can be made more beautiful by creating opportunities to engage patients and access technology.

I recently spent time cross-pollinating clinical ideas with design leaders at the 2013 Healthcare Design Conference. Here are some ideas to support your therapeutic environment for healing and patient satisfaction in the new year.

  1. Dismantle digital barriers. When using your EHR, allow the technology to humanize the experience. Good design includes intentional placement of computer screens and keyboards with the doctor-patient partnership in mind. The screen should be placed so that eye contact can be maintained and that the screen can engage the patient with ease. If space limitations prevent placement of an adjustable desktop monitor stand within view of the patient, consider a laptop or mobile solution for EHR input in front of the patient.
  2. Get patients on your level. The traditional exam table is no longer the only option for setting up a basic exam room. Studies have shown that there’s great benefit in implementing recliners, such as the Empath by Nurture. Post-op patients, patients with mobility problems, and the clinician can appreciate that the recliner reduces strain, aids in positioning the patient at eye level, and facilitates conversation and the exam itself.
  3. Consider lighting. Doctors are accustomed to having challenging conversations with patients and family, but do they always set the right environment to do so? Mood lighting isn’t just for movie directors—it’s also good medicine. If a patient is acutely grieving for a loved one, having slightly dim or softer light can go a long way to help the doctor-patient relationship be more present and the space more authentic.
  4. Keep it comfy. Extend a more healing touch to garments that optimize patients’ tactile clinical experience. Though paper gowns are more convenient, a recent survey by Harris Interactive found that four out of five patients prefer cloth gowns over disposable paper gowns because cloth is more comfortable.
  5. Bring out your smartphone. We have been peering into patients for centuries, and patients have never been able to see what the clinician sees—until now. Using smartphone-enabled ophthalmoscope and otoscope, the visual record can be preserved forever. You can do your usual exam of the fundus and tympanic membrane, but now you can take those vivid photos and show the patient or a specialist your findings on-the-spot or remotely.
  6. Create staff social space. Patients aren’t the only users of the clinic space, and increased physician stress impedes the ability to put healing interactions first. However, going digital often creates opportunities to be more intentional about use of space. For example, old paper filing rooms can be turned into a wellness or respite space where clinical staff can socialize between patients.
  7. Extend your reach to patient homes. Empower your patients in their own space by supporting their use of smartphone-based healthcare devices. Patients with smartphone-enabled blood pressure and ECG devices can be their own data collectors and be better connected to their physical health between visits.

The places we design can help empower staff, patients and family members better connect to each other and help humanize the healthcare experience. Outsource some of the therapy you provide to your thoughtfully designed clinical space, and ask yourself if the environment created is doing everything it can for your patients.