Best Face Forward: Tips for Creating a Warm Welcome for Patients and Visitors

By Tama Duffy Day & Bonny Slater | March/April 2023 Issue | MCD Magazine

When it comes to a physical space’s first impressions, messages are quickly and unconsciously perceived differently depending on the user. It is no secret that everyone views the world through a unique lens all relative to personal life experiences and cultural and contextual upbringings.

With this in mind, when creating healthcare environments that curate positive first impressions, it is a must to consider the audience the design is intended to reach and the message the design will convey. According to Gensler’s Outpatient Experience Index, research shows certain aspects of healthcare facility design – the facility’s exterior, the check-in and registration processes, the waiting room atmosphere, the experience of the exam room before the physician arrives, etc. – make an outsized impression on specific cohorts.

Designing anchor institutions of communities

Health systems often serve entire regions and face the challenge of appealing to diverse populations while also establishing brand consistency. Gensler and Henry Ford Health faced this exact challenge when they attempted to create a vision for the health system’s expanding ambulatory care services in communities across Detroit, Michigan.

The final design ultimately drew on inspiration from Detroit’s renaissance from America’s poorest big city to a city of charm. The team highlighted the Motor City’s revival brilliance by celebrating industrial details like blackened metals and concrete-look flooring. The goal was to create an aesthetic that would be welcoming to all and has appeal across generations and cultural backgrounds. These details were paired with Henry Ford’s signature dark walnut and blue accents to connect with the brand.

Learning from other industries

Studying other industries and implementing ideas in a problem-solving trial-and-error methodology helps create strong first impressions and key messages. In fact, in many healthcare projects, inspiration is drawn from both the hospitality and aviation sectors.

For example, at Henry Ford, roaming greeters – like airports – are poised to welcome visitors at centralized locations and assist eh check-in process manually or in a digital tablet depending on their needs and preferences. In a world where so much has gone digital and we’re often greeted by an overwhelming array of signs, a personal welcome humanizes the experience and sends a message to the user that they are seen and will be cared for. At Henry Ford, the only sign is one welcoming the user.

Enhancing the waiting experience

After check-in, the waiting experience is perhaps one of the most important aspects of creating a positive first impression. Gensler’s OEXI and additional patient experience research report that the length of the wait time is directly correlated with patient experience ratings (regardless of the design quality). Therefore, flows that minimize wait time likely have the greatest impact.

Additionally, the waiting experience impacts perceptions of the quality of care, as well as the level of trustworthiness and respect. Consider messages sent in spaces that are crowded and worn where personal information is overheard by others.

Henry Ford’s ambulatory sites were designed to provide ample personal space in settings inspired by Detroit’s boutique hotel lounges. Operationally, waiting is minimized; these lounges are utilized more by family members than patients.

Henry Ford’s leadership has seen the impacts the revitalized first impressions have had on the health system.

“As the famous saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression,”, says Henry Ford’s Vice President of Facilities & Support Services Gene Barber. “It’s cliché, but it’s the reality we live in, and it certainly applies to the healthcare industry. For Henry Ford, it was important to establish that Henry Ford tone upfront with every patient, visitor, member, and employee who walks through our front doors. We designed a consistent experience across locations that pits everyone at ease and conveys a sense of respect and familiarity.”

Safety & Security

Discussions around first impressions often include safety and security, which can result in design measures that conflict with the goals of being welcoming and a trusted part of the community. Consider how a user feels when entering a space with the presence of security guards and reception staff behind barriers.

For some reason, this can send the message that there are safety concerns. For others, it can signal that you – and your community – cannot be trusted. Designers must account for the reality that many patients and staff have had traumatic experiences that can be triggered by armed security guards, for example. Therefore, that trauma-informed care lens is essential.

These considerations factored heavily into the design of Community of Hope’s new Family Health and Birth Center located in Washington, D.C. An influx of a bright color palette immediately hit the eye of the user, offering a warm welcome to all. Friendly staff sits behind a low reception desk, which is subtly closed off to patient access and is positioned to provide a clear view of entries and the waiting area.

Community of Hope CEO Kelly Sweeney McShane explains, “In a world where there are real safety concerns, it’s important to bring awareness to different perspectives around safety. Our goal was to design an arrival experience that allows staff and visitors to feel safe, welcome, and ready to trust.”

Within a few seconds, users take in clues that engage or disengage their interest in a space. Therefore, nailing the first impression of a healthcare facility is non-negotiable. Designers must account for a variety of factors including, safety precautions, color use, signage, and material use. There is no second chance to make a first impression.

Tama Duffy Day, FIIDA, FASID, FACHE, LEED AP, is a principal and global leader in the Health Sector at Gensler. Bonny Slater, ASID, LEED AP, is a design director and regional practice leader for Healthcare and Wellness at Gensler.

To read the Gensler Outpatient Experience Index, click here.

To view this article in its entirety, click here.

Written by Anne Holden