Waiting room audits tell much about your facility

By Stephen W. Earnhart, MS
President & CEO
Earnhart & Associates
Dallas

Keeping track of everything that is happening in your facility each month is becoming more and more difficult. However, it doesn’t mean that you still don’t have to conduct and update benchmarks. You might want to benchmark and update your existing benchmarks on a more frequent basis than that, but quarterly is the minimum. This month, we will look at the waiting room issue.

One of the best ways I know to find out how your staff and facility operate is to spend time in your waiting room. You can do this yourself (not recommended — who has time?) or have staff do it for you.

Have someone sit in the waiting area with a clipboard. (The auditor might want to conceal the clipboard with a magazine; you don’t want to be too obvious.) Obviously it is best if they are in street clothes so they will blend in with the crowd.

Listen and learn

Consider the following suggestions to grade the area. It is only a partial list — you can add more that will personalize it to your facility.

Most of the time, the audit involves listening. What are the patients and their families saying about the center? You should hear many comments on the decor, the age of the magazines, the frustrations — "I can’t believe I had to come in three hours before my surgery" — and similar remarks.

Also, after awhile, you will be able to see the center through the patient’s eyes. However, most of the comments will be made by famly members with way too much time on their hands — which is perfect — the more critical the analysis, the more improvements you can make.

Did you ever notice that water spot on the ceiling before? Is the carpet showing its age? What is the condition of the patient bathrooms? Make a chart that covers, at the minimum, the following points:

  • Comfort of the chairs (standard American seat width: 18 inches across)
  • Condition of the waiting area
  • Cleanliness of area
  • Chairs
  • Carpet
  • Water fountain
  • Phone area
  • Play area
  • Registration area
  • Lobby
  • Reading material
    — Appropriate?
    — Outdated?
  • Comments from patients
  • Comments from family members
  • Conversations overheard from staff members
    — Are you hearing things from a staff member about a patient you shouldn’t hear?
  • Sounds heard that shouldn’t be heard or that startle people in the area
  • Smells
  • Unnecessary traffic from staff or others
  • Level of privacy of patients and their families
  • Registration desk
    — Clean?
  • Registration staff
    — Friendly?
    — Helpful?
  • Forms appropriate?

Don’t forget the parking lot

While you are checking out the lobby, have your auditor check out the parking lot; drive by it at night to make sure there are no burned out lights. Again, is it clean, available, and something that you can be proud of? Or, does it immediately set your patients blood pressure soaring because there is no place to park or it is too far away from the door?

If you can, consider spots right in front of your door. One thing that physicians state in their comments about patient satisfaction is access to the facility. Painful though it may be, you may have to have your staff park off-site in order to accommodate your patients. (Oh, that is a lovely agenda item for your staff meeting!)

In my opinion, your lobby/waiting area begins at the front door of the building in which you are located. How easy are you to find? Is the signage to your unit legible? Are signs still there or have they been knocked down? Has the floor plan changed with new construction? You may think you are only judged on your internal department, but the patients will judge you on the entire experience.

Clearly there is a wealth of information available to you in the lobby. Now that you have it, what are you going to do with it? Share it at your staff meeting and ask for suggestions on how to improve your image. Sometimes a "paint party" to repaint the waiting area over the weekend works. Certainly a "How can we improve your wait?" survey in the waiting room will give you a wealth of information. When you get a good suggestion, invite the person who suggested it to come in and see the results if applicable.

Consider a picture of each staff member in the lobby with their name (first name only is best) and their titles. It makes the staff feel good and gives the patients something to focus on.

Personalize your waiting room as much as you can; a small bookcase with previously read paperbacks is a good way to get rid of them, and at the same time, give your patients or family members something to occupy their time. Do not forget to send the results of your audit to your surgeons. This would be a great time to put together a small newsletter and get the results out to them.

Remember, the time a patient or family members spends in the waiting area may be their most critical appraisal of you. Maximize that time.

[Editor’s note: Earnhart can be reached at Earnhart & Associates, 5905 Tree Shadow Place, Suite 1200, Dallas, TX 75252. E-mail: searnhart@earnhart.com. Web site: http://www.earnhart.com.]