The Supremes probably weren’t talking about rehab therapists in their 1966 hit, “You Can’t Hurry Love.” They were right about one thing, though: sometimes, “you just have to wait.” But if the wait is long, it’s easy to lose motivation. And for therapy patients, staying motivated is crucial to treatment success. Plus, to a society of multitaskers, sitting in reception can feel like a waste of valuable time. So, whether you’re revamping your medical waiting room design or crafting the perfect reception area soundtrack, it’s important to focus on creating a waiting room experience that’s pleasant, relaxing, and productive. To that end, here are my tips for improving patient satisfaction in the waiting room:

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A smile isn’t always sufficient.

You’ve probably heard the term “service with a smile” at some point in your career. The idea is simple: people—particularly Americans—are highly receptive to anyone who offers a smile, and a smile can be the catalyst to a positive customer experience. If you think about it, this idea certainly has merit. Have you ever approached a reception desk and been greeted with indifference—or worse, irritation? It’s hard not to take it personally. But being greeted with a smile is just one ingredient in the recipe for a great patient experience, and putting too much focus on it can be problematic.

For one thing, requiring staff members to force their smiles can create an unhealthy environment for employees. Furthermore, it undercuts the importance of cultivating truly meaningful interactions. That’s not to say that employees need to wax philosophical with every patient who walks through the door. However, when front-office staff demonstrate empathy and emotional intelligence, it goes a long way toward creating lasting positive impressions.

Prioritize emotional intelligence.

This aspect of customer service should be an ongoing priority in your practice. In fact, many companies are starting to make emotional intelligence a major part of their culture. This movement has inspired the creation of numerous training workshops and personality assessments aimed at analyzing and improving employee communication skills—all with a goal of helping them better empathize with clients and colleagues as well as effectively reframe difficult interactions (at WebPT, we like the DiSC method). The result is patients who feel more like partners than customers.

Great greetings are paramount.

You wouldn’t greet a stranger the same way you greet your best friend—and you shouldn’t welcome a new patient the same way you say “hi” to a regular. Rehab therapy is an incredibly hands-on, personalized form of treatment, and therapy professionals should apply that mentality outside of the treatment area as well. Here are some things to consider when greeting a returning patient:

  • Does the patient have nickname he or she prefers?
  • What title (e.g., Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Dr.) does he or she use?
  • Does the patient have a child, parent, or pet he or she mentions frequently?
  • Has he or she had a birthday or attended a special event recently?

Take notes.

Even for folks with the sharpest memories, keeping track of so many details can be, well, a lot. So, I’d recommend having your front desk staff log this sort of information in the patient’s file (if you’re using an EMR platform, there should be a section reserved specifically for additional comments or patient notes).

Honesty is the best policy.

Occasionally, a patient may have to wait a little longer than usual. Perhaps your previous appointment ran a little late, or maybe the traffic during your morning commute was so slow it could’ve lost a foot race to a streak of molasses. Either way, it happens, and when it does, it’s important to keep patients apprised of the situation. After all, it’s one thing to wait; it’s another thing to wait without knowing how long it’ll be.

Keep patients in the loop.

As this article from Physicians Practice states, “While no patient likes a long wait in the reception area, it’s how the wait is handled that really affects patient satisfaction.” Offering an apology and providing the patient with updates whenever possible does a lot to ease a patient’s frustration, and it shows that you know their time is important, too.

On those occasions when the therapist is running late, front-office staff should avoid putting the patient in a room just to move him or her out of the waiting area. In reception, the patient can walk around, grab a cup of coffee, and ask for updates from the front-desk staff. In the treatment room, the patient may feel isolated—or worse, forgotten about.

Ambiance is everything.

Now comes the fun part. When it comes to waiting area design, what kind of image do you want to project? What message should this space convey about your practice’s personality? It’s time to unleash your creative side and give your waiting room a little stylish flair. Whether you’re slapping a new coat of paint on the walls or adding some colorful focal points, your artistic efforts help mold your patients’ impression of you. And on a not-so-subconscious level, the effort you put into creating an inviting waiting area sends a message to patients about the value you place on their comfort—and that’s huge.

These changes don’t have to be expensive, either—you can start by rearranging the existing furniture and creating a regular cleaning routine to keep the waiting room clutter-free. As WebPT’s Brooke Andrus suggests in this post, “There should be an obvious path to your ‘landing area’—be it a front desk, a podium, or a main product display.”

Create atmosphere on a budget.

Remodeling not in the budget this year? A cost-effective way to enhance the patient experience is by providing some form of entertainment in the reception area. The kind of entertainment you choose should align with your patient demographic as well as the ambiance you’re trying to cultivate in your practice. For example, if you tend to see a lot of pediatric patients, you may want to consider providing a TV with family-friendly DVDs, a box of toys, or coloring books. If your patients are primarily adults, you’ll want to stock up on lifestyle magazines and think about having a TV tuned to a cable news channel.

Set the mood with music.

Some practices use music to set the tone for relaxation. With various streaming services like Spotify and Pandora available for a low monthly cost—or sometimes even free—you can piece together the perfect playlist or keep your stereo tuned to a specific genre. Playing the radio is an option as well, but you can’t always control the song that’s playing—and many people find radio commercials grating. No matter what type of music you choose, it’s important to keep your patients in mind. You might be a big fan of country music, but your patients may not share your appreciation.

Technology improves outcomes—and patient satisfaction.

Throughout the healthcare industry, there’s a lot of buzz on the topics of outcomes tracking and the role of technology in creating a better patient experience. Perhaps that’s why waiting room kiosks have become so popular. According to this study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, intake kiosks can save some serious time for providers and patients alike. And that directly translates to an increase in practice income and a boost in patient outcomes. However, the study also indicated that successful implementation of a kiosk station hinges on the front-office staff’s commitment to encouraging patients to actually use it.

Eliminate the wait with telehealth.

While we’re on the subject of patient-focused technology, we’d be remiss to exclude telehealth. Telehealth has made waves across many specialties, but PTs, OTs, and SLPs have been late to the game—and that’s not by coincidence. Many payers—including Medicare—still don’t fully reimburse rehab therapists for telehealth services. However, that might be about to change thanks to two bills currently sitting before Congress that would expand telehealth opportunities for PTs, OTs, and SLPs. The passage of these bills would be mutually beneficial for providers and patients alike. That’s because telehealth has a positive impact on patient outcomes by increasing patient engagement and satisfaction. It also greatly improves patient access to care, as patients don’t have to travel to brick-and-mortar offices for treatments or consultations that can easily be delivered via a video conferencing platform.


A pleasant reception area can do a lot to enhance patient satisfaction. And even if you’re not in the position to shell out hundreds of hard-earned dollars to replace scuffed up linoleum or install trendy light fixtures, there’s plenty you can do to improve your patients’ wait without emptying your bank account. At the end of the day, a warm greeting and welcoming environment will always be at the heart of a great patient experience—and, much like love according to the Beatles, that’s something money can’t buy.

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