Is Your New Dental Office Layout Designed To Be Functional, Or Just To Look Pretty?

Recently I was asked to look at a surgery design being proposed for a new dental practice.

The proposed practice had seven treatment rooms, a large patient waiting room, and a large staff room, including a staff bathroom and shower area.

On paper the proposed office looked very impressive.

But on closer analysis, the design had some major flaws.

It reminded me of that scene in the movie “Heartburn” starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep where they are doing some home renovations, and Jack Nicholson’s character points out to the builder [in a heated manner] that there is no internal doorway between the new kitchen and the living room, and so to move between those rooms, people need to walk out of the kitchen and outside the house and then re-enter the living room from the outside of the house!

A few years ago I coached a dental practice in upstate Pennsylvania that was moving into a newly designed and newly built stand-alone building with nine dental operatories.

On any day this practice had six hygienists and three dentists seeing patients.

But the dental front desk area, only had space for three dental receptionists.

And so, every hour, on the hour, in this brand new facility, the practice had nine patients leaving and nine patients arriving, and they had only three team members and three small places at a reception counter to conduct appointment making, to process patient payments, and to discuss big case matters of financial arrangements and treatment scheduling… the new facility had created a perfect patient logjam area.

And sadly, within this new up and running facility, there was no space whatsoever available for expansion of the necessary front office areas, without creating a separate area away from everything in the dental office’s basement.

The immediate solution in this new office when it opened and realised its dilemma, was to equip each hygiene room with an EFTPOS terminal, so that the hygienists could perform payment processing and ongoing appointment scheduling in their rooms, to reduce the front desk logjam effect that the new design had inadvertently and successfully created.

Hardly an ideal solution…

Prior to the build, the dental office design looked all nice and pretty on paper, but patient flow and office functionality seemed to have been brushed over by the designers and seemed to have been forgotten as a necessity by the owners.

For those of us who have ever built a home from scratch, these “design issues” can be real and relevant when we look at room placements and doorway positions, and people movements, and bathrooms and hallways and bedrooms and television placements… When building a home to live in… where families and visitors often spend a lot of their time stationary, sometimes “inconveniences” can be excused…

And I know patients spend a lot of time in the stationary position at the dental office… while being treated, while waiting for treatment in the “waiting room” [what a horrid term that is!!] and while waiting to check out at the front desk, but not having sufficient facility at the front office to be able to conduct all financial and scheduling matters in a relaxed and comfortable environment, let alone being able to conduct any private and personal social interactions with our patients, is akin to creating a supermarket or department store cash register area where large numbers of customers with trolleys full of shopping wait frustratingly in a chicane that funnels them all down to an area where maybe eight registers are unmanned and only two registers are actually operating…. we’ve all been in that shopping situation and it ain’t that much fun for the shopper…

So much so, that in the retail situation, sometimes the shopper can’t be bothered to wait to have their payments processed, and so they just abandon their trolleys and run away…. you get the picture?

And in a dental environment, where dentistry is the ULTIMATE GRUDGE BUY, why wouldn’t a surgery designer and a surgery owner be looking at creating the most comfortable and relaxed areas possible for patients to schedule their necessary appointments for ongoing treatment and to attend to their financial arrangements?

And just to touch on another missing area in this proposed Taj Mahal design of a dental practice that I saw, there was no staff training room area proposed, and nor was there a private office area for the practice owners.

There was also no private area for dental front office team members to be phoning patients and discussing private patient matters, that wasn’t within earshot of a “waiting room” full of anxious waiting patients…

The design really looked like a “cut and paste” proposal… no wonder it needed a large “waiting area” because that’s what I envisaged the clients of that practice would be doing each and every time that they visited this practice…. and maybe that might only be once or twice, until they got fed up with having to be waiting, waiting, waiting…. and they took their business elsewhere.

Ultimately, the new design was far from perfect. And far from really being functional. But it did look pretty on paper….


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