Pretty much everyone hates waiting rooms. Here are four statistics about them from a survey administered by Software Advice, an Austin, Texas–based consultation group: 80% of respondents said being told the accurate wait time would either completely or somewhat minimize their frustration; 40% said they would be willing to see another physician if it meant a shorter waiting time; 20% would be willing to pay an extra fee for quicker service; and 97%—virtually all of us!—are frustrated by wait times. And now, waiting rooms, in addition to being some of the dreariest places on earth, have become one of the easiest places in the world to get sick.
And yet emergency rooms, urgent care centers, doctors’ offices, DMVs, government offices, universities, continue to spend money and waste valuable real estate constructing these dreaded spaces. The time for change is long overdue. The technology exists today to virtualize waiting rooms with mobile wait-management or queue-management platforms that let people join a virtual line from their phone, get a wait forecast, roam freely while they wait, and receive a notification as their turn approaches, with wait forecast updates in real time, and even the ability to choose the time they want to be served.
What does this mean for healthcare administrators? Perhaps the better question is: When patients are free to wait anywhere, or show up just in time for service, why are hospitals still building waiting rooms? The global pandemic and our new understanding of face-to-face interaction does not mean that we have done away with the need to wait. Courtesy of digital technology, we have arrived in the age of the curated wait. The ability for cities to provide more space to the public realm will be a determining factor of how well we manage a safe approach to interaction in the short run and revive our local economies for the future.
Construction costs for many building types are extremely high; for instance, general hospital construction in California can approach $700 per square foot, and even more. Redirecting the cost of waiting rooms to the cost of indoor-outdoor spaces with capacity to provide areas of repose and micro-retail experiences would be a win-win for both patients and cost-conscious administrators. The lobby can be a virtual space, but co-locating physical restaurants, pharmacies, and retail with patient-care facilities is a way to recapture the time and space spent waiting.
Medical malls that separate the diagnostic outpatient functions of the hospital from inpatient areas provide opportunities for robust waiting experiences weaved in. At Jaber AL Ahmad Hospital, in Kuwait, a large, 30-meter-high atrium has multiple levels of experience and an emphasis on movement rather than sitting while waiting. When the local climate permits, the exterior of a hospital can help further decentralize activities. At Jaber Al Ahmad, designed by Langdon Wilson International, there is a distinct entry sequence that distributes incoming patients, staff and visitors to six different entry nodes. The decentralization of entry points creates less foot traffic and the ability for each tower to house its own waiting and entry sequences. Light towers accentuate areas of visitor arrival points at each level and views to the desert landscape. In addition to minimizing the need for waiting areas and providing escape, the hospital design uses these spaces as features to accentuate the movement of people in the facility. During the pandemic, sectors of the hospital have been utilized as Covid-19 quarantine and treatment areas due to the ability to circulate patients into areas designated for the infected with separate entries. This allows the facility to see both Covid and non-Covid patients easily.
In the case of schools, the indoor experience during the Covid era is being rethought from a perspective of how excess real estate or open spaces may be co-utilized for outdoor classrooms. Most model guidelines and the CDC’s recommendations require more real estate. For parents, students, and school administrations, the pick-up and drop-off scenarios require timed arrival of parents by grades. At some schools, those longer wait times have become moments of parent interaction or updates of school happenings. Whereas concentrating people waiting in the same area creates parking and safety challenges, the local coffee shop or grocery stores are retail opportunities for neighboring businesses.
Mobile wait-management systems need to be integrated into the operational ethos and the design of spaces at every scale, whether at the urban level of spaces in between buildings, waiting rooms, school pick-up lines, homes, or workplaces. The pandemic has thrust us into an immersive training session in how the virtual environment can and cannot work. A balanced relationship between indoor and outdoor environments and an economic incentive must be provided to both developers and consumers to ensure the inclusion and success of these hybrid spaces.
We’re living now in an apps-driven world of dispersal and convenience. With that comes great opportunity. Through a new narrative for our waiting, we may just be able to reshape a sustainable economy driven by quality, safety, and ease. No waiting rooms required.
Featured image via the New York Daily News.