Clutter in the clinic

Can a doctor have a cluttered office or waiting room and still be perceived as clinically competent?

Perhaps so, but too much clutter – stacks of outdated magazines in the waiting room, charts piled on a desk, medical equipment parked in the hall, kiddie play area in chaos – can send the wrong message and make patients start to wonder: If the doctor and staff can’t keep their workplace clean, what else can’t they manage?

American Medical News tackled the clutter challenge this week in an article that minces few words about why it matters.

Here’s the assessment of Kristin Baird, CEO of the Baird Group, which consults with hospitals and medical practices on how to improve the patient experience:

Even though a place might be clean and there are no infection-control issues, if the patient sees a bunch of clutter, they will think the place is not clean. They will think, ‘Do I have to worry about catching something here?’ They start to not trust you.

It can also look unprofessional, the article points out. Take the pictures, trinkets and other items people often bring to personalize their desk. Staff may think it helps make the clinic look more homelike but too much of it “doesn’t make patients feel at home most of the time,” Johnny Hagerman, assistant vice president of marketing for MedStar Health, told American Medical News. “It makes them feel the place is disorganized and not well managed.”

Patients clearly do notice these things. A review on Yelp for a San Francisco physician, for instance, gave the doctor one out of five stars and offered a heaping helping of criticism, including this observation about the waiting room: “hairs on the floor and it’s kind of dusty.” The reviewer concluded that one visit to this doctor “was enough for me.”

Another online reviewer on the East Coast dinged a doctor for a cluttered, outdated office (“She should clean up her office. First impressions are important.”) and actually bailed out without waiting for an exam.

As dental practice consultant Ken Smith puts it, “The patient likely will not tell their friends about the great margin on that crown, but they will be sure to mention the dirty operatory lamp or messy waiting area.”

One of my personal beefs: cluttered signage. (Click here for a great example.) What’s with all the confusing arrows? Which sign am I supposed to read first?

Neatness is important enough that many of the standardized patient surveys for both hospitals and medical practices ask the question: Was the waiting room/exam room/hospital room neat and clean?

There often seems to be a gap between medical professionals and patients on this issue. Doctors want to be judged on the basis of their skills, knowledge and caring, not on something as superficial-seeming as the state of their waiting room. But how is the average person supposed to gauge these qualities? Often it comes down to what the patient can see and evaluate firsthand, and this includes clutter – unremarked-on when it’s not there but conspicuous when it is.

Photo: West Central Tribune

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