Improving the customer experience of the surgery waiting room

surgical waitingMy son, who is 19, had surgery two days ago at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts. I was impressed with the ways in which Emerson improved the experience of waiting for a surgical patient. I also have a few suggestions.

The surgery was successful and my son is recovering nicely. Everybody is fine. The surgical’s team’s number one job is to do the surgery safely and successfully. Just after that comes treating the patient well before and after the surgery. Emerson and the surgeon did great on both of those.

But I’d like to talk about what it’s like for a family member. Consider that every single person waiting for a surgical patient is having a very bad day. They are worried and have plenty of time to consider all the things that could go wrong. Each of us is a stranger in our own little world, surrounded by the baffling systems of medicine.

People in surgical waiting rooms need two things: information and comfort.

I’ve been in waiting rooms in the past where both information and comfort were scarce. This was different.

Sharing information with families of surgical patients

Emerson’s Clough Surgical Center has a spacious waiting area with a reception desk in the middle. When you check in, they find you on a paper list on a clipboard and then check you into the system. They eventually come get you and stash you in a pre-op room where you get visits from nurses, the anesthesiologist, and the surgeon.

Then the family leaves and the waiting begins. We knew the surgery would take about four hours. A volunteer came over and took our names and matched them up with her patient list. She promised to keep us informed and help us if we needed information.

There is also a large, vertically mounted monitor in front of the reception desk. The monitor lists patient numbers (they can’t use names because of patient confidentiality), each with a color coded status: pre-op, operating room, closing, post-op. It reminded my wife and me of the monitors at the airport. This is a far better system than what I’ve seen elsewhere: you have to bug the reception person, who has to call and check with a nurses’ station somewhere.

I checked the monitor regularly and found it reassuring, plus I didn’t need to constantly bother people.

As it turned out, the surgery started late. The volunteer had checked with us at the end of her shift and told us that our son was still in surgery but we would hear from nurses when it was possible to come see him. An hour later, the display showed that our son was in post-op but the reception staff and the volunteers had gone home and I was becoming impatient. I found a staff person in a room labelled “pre-op testing” and asked her if she could check for me. She contacted the post-op area, confirmed that my son was recovering and awake, and said a nurse would be out shortly to get me. It pleased me that she was so helpful even though this was clearly not her job.

Naturally, I have some suggestions for improvement. I’d like to see the reception staff and the volunteers armed with tablets so they could move around the area while keeping up to date and entering information. (Using paper in a medical setting seems antiquated to me now. My dermatologist uses a tablet and it’s great — she can check on everything while facing me and talking to me, and she can even compare photos of my skin with ones they took previously.) I’d also like to see the patient status information on a mobile site or app. Getting up to check out the monitor is no big deal, but with an app I could get a notification when the status changed, which would be great.

Surgical waiting areas should focus on comfort

The level of comfort in the surgical waiting area impressed me. The setting is cool, spacious, comfortable, and quiet. There is a bank of windows that lets in natural light with a view of the forest outside. The lighting is subdued, not the usual hospital glare. The hospital provides WiFi and a terminal if you want to check the Internet.

That said, I’d like to challenge one of the base assumptions of medicine: that every hospital waiting room must have a television. When you’re under stress, the constant yammering of daytime TV makes everything worse. Every person who was waiting with us had a smartphone or their own reading material. The surgical waiting area at Emerson is configured so that you can easily move away from the TV, which is helpful, but if we can have smoking-free hospitals, why can’t we eliminate the TVs in the waiting areas, too?

Graphic: Painting by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. I nodded knowingly upon reading your statement; so distracting and annoying.

    That said, I’d like to challenge one of the base assumptions of medicine: that every hospital waiting room must have a television. When you’re under stress, the constant yammering of daytime TV makes everything worse.

  2. These are great suggestions. I would also add that most hospitals need to make waiting rooms more comfortable. Usually, the chairs are hard and uncomfortable; the waiting spaces are dusty; and the bathrooms are terrible—especially for a hospital environment. I’ve had poor bathroom experiences in hospitals across the country, so I know it’s not limited to where I live.

    As for the TV, it can be annoying, or, in some cases, it can be a comfort. Instead of doing away with TVs, why not provide visitors with inexpensive headphones (like the type that airlines give away)?

  3. YES, the constant TV blare is more than I can stand in waiting rooms (and restaurants.) Thanks Josh for thoughtful consideration of how to make a stressful situation less stressful, and sharing it with your readers.

  4. We’re taking a look at this problem directly and have one software solution for it now. Thanks for posting, always good to hear anecdotal evidence of the problem we are addressing for families and hospitals.