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A New Approach to an Age-Old Practice: Designing the Doctor’s Office in the Covid Era

A New Approach to an Age-Old Practice: Designing the Doctor’s Office in the Covid Era
August 31, 2020


In recent decades, architects and interior designers specializing in healthcare design have consciously shifted away from creating sterile doctor’s offices reminiscent of the early, institutionalized clinical spaces of modern medicine. At Bernardon, we count ourselves among the designers who have been committed to creating environments that promote productivity and holistic health through comfort and well-being.

This approach has involved creating comprehensive doctor’s offices – including the waiting rooms, exam rooms, and nurse stations – that are warm, residential in style, and are generally more welcoming for both patients and staff alike. Carpets have replaced cold tile floors. Comfortable chairs with soft fabrics fill waiting rooms. Walls are adorned with framed paintings. Neutral color palettes offer a welcoming alternative to sterile white walls.

Then came the year 2020. We now find ourselves back at the proverbial drawing board and reassessing how to design clinical spaces that are welcoming but also Covid compliant. Designers are facing the challenge of embracing a change in approach that now shifts away from the warm and friendly residential atmosphere to which patients and staff have become so accustomed.

Wayfinding in the Waiting Room

Perhaps the most immediate, recognizable change has been seen in the waiting room. Now designers must consider how to make waiting rooms pleasant but Covid compliant. As social distancing has become the new normal, healthcare organizations have experienced changes in staffing and patient procedures. For appointments, patients are instructed to call at arrival and wait in their cars if waiting room occupancy is full.  If so, a staff member will notify them when their appointment is ready. Seating capacity has become greatly reduced, with some organizations reporting significant drops in the number of acceptable occupants in the waiting area – as much as 60 to 75% less occupants.

While the size of these waiting rooms will remain the same, the elements within will undoubtedly change. Instead, wayfinding will become the priority. This will be done by creating traffic patterns that will safely move patients and staff through the space and ensuring that these paths of travel do not unnecessarily cross each other. To separate occupants and improve flow, mobile barriers and dividers will be common additions to these areas.

Rethinking the Reception Desk

For healthcare staff in doctor’s offices, measures taken to ensure safety have included scheduling procedures including dividing staff into staggered shifts and on/off days. Regarding design for the reception area, the purpose and look of the traditional reception desk must also be revisited. While open, airy layouts have become common to create a welcoming area within the clinical space, physical adjustments to the desk will need to be made. Physical adjustments include the return of the physical barrier to the desk area. Whether a glass window or mobile partition, these barriers will serve to protect both the patient and the staff member from any possible airborne transmission.

Safeguarding the Central Nurse Station

In terms of the central work stations where healthcare staff perform much of their patient documentation, there has been a response across the industry in terms of changes that can be implemented to make the working area safer. Organizations are requesting to move away from soft surfaces to hard surfaces that are easier to clean and maintain including materials that can be cleaned by bleach.

Acknowledging Airborne Elements & Acoustics

Perhaps less obvious, but just as crucial are the aspects of air quality and acoustics within the doctor’s office. The threat of Covid-19 transmission through microdroplets has reinforced the need to consider the impact of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and its impact on these clinical spaces. In terms of acoustics, designers are now questioning which acoustical finishes to use that will create a comfortable environment, but will also be easy to clean. Even carpeting has become a concern with whether or not microdroplets can attach themselves to the carpet fabrics.

A New Approach in a New Normal

Nowadays, terms like “new normal” have been become embedded into our daily vernacular. And undoubtedly, the healthcare industry has been one of the hardest hit by this “new normal” in terms of function. As designers of a wide range of healthcare spaces, Bernardon remains committed to striving to provide solution-based design and adapt to the changes in approach that are needed. We are finding that these changes in doctor’s offices and various clinical spaces may continue for as long as three to five years, and as our clients continue to adapt to what’s needed in terms of providing sound healthcare, so too will we adjust our design approaches to provide spaces that can supplement that care.

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