8 reasons operatory esthetics matter to your patients

May 15, 2017

Why your design decisions have a much bigger impact than you might think.

When designing your operatory, you probably consider many aspects. From your practice goals to the staff’s needs to your equipment footprint and even your future technology acquisitions, each factor is vital to your workflow and desired level of patient care. However, in the pursuit of efficiency and productivity, one area often overlooked is the design esthetic-and it can have repercussions for your patients’ experiences.

Here are seven reasons that operatory esthetics matter to your patients.

Reason 1: Our emotions influence our perception of a patient experience.

Colin Shaw, founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, a global customer experience consultancy, explains that our brains use their conscious and subconscious experiences to look for clues to decide how we feel during the appointment. These clues could be colors of the walls, materials used for the furniture, cleanliness, organization styles (or lack thereof), and even sounds or smells. Each adds to the patient’s perception, either positive or negative.

“Every dental practice has a conscious and subconscious experience,” Shaw explains, “but they aren’t always deliberate about them. Dentists don’t always realize how each of the moments in the appointment affects the patient’s feelings. How things look can be one of these overlooked moments.”

Reason 2: We make judgments based on appearance all the time.

You have heard you can’t judge a book by its cover, well-intentioned advice meant to discourage us from making judgments based on appearance. However, we all do it. How something looks influences our opinion of it on several levels. It’s true of restaurants, cars and, yes, dental operatories. We start assessing as soon as we enter the treatment room. It affects our perception of our patient experience, good or bad.

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Crissy Treon, senior poduct manager at Midmark’s Dental Division, agrees that esthetic design for dental operatories is integral to presenting the proper atmosphere for your patient experience.

“The look and feel of your practice is your brand. So, if you have worn chairs or delaminating cabinets, patients may associate the lack of maintenance to the quality of care they are receiving,” she says.

Reason 3: Proper esthetics help distract patients struggling with anxious feelings.

Many people coming to the dentist’s office feel stressed about the uncertainty of what is going to happen next, anxious feelings that compound upon entering the treatment room. Dental environment designs reflect a trend to reduce these uncomfortable feelings. The American Dental Association’s (ADA) resource, “

,” explains that more dental offices are designed with the patient in mind.  Many seem more like a spa than a dental office.

Shaw supports this idea of designing with the patient in mind, adding that he is always surprised “that when I’m sitting in the dentist chair, very little is done to distract me.” Shaw recommends a patient-focused experience, which could include having TVs to watch or having the patient choose music to play during his or her appointment. He also suggests using lavender scent to reinforce the calming effect.

“Calm surroundings and a pleasant environment are critical,” Shaw says. “Creating the environment that you’re not visiting the dentist is ideal.”

Reason 4: What’s out of sight is out of a patient’s mind.

There is a lot of equipment in a dental operatory. You see practical tools to treat patients efficiently. However, some patients see instruments they don’t understand and feel anxious. Clean lines without a lot of visible equipment can help put a patient’s mind at ease.

“Dentistry tends to use gear,” John Flucke, DDS, Chief Technology Editor of DPR, says. “And we just keep adding equipment. It might not even be big stuff, it might be small, but we just keep adding things. We don’t think about it as much in the field, but when people come in and see all kinds of gear and they don’t know what it’s for, some of it looks a little scary.”

When Dr. Flucke and his wife had their first child, their labor and delivery room resembled a nice hotel room rather than a medical space. However, the space transformed when it was time to deliver the baby, with equipment that came out of cabinets, closets and even the ceiling. He used the same concept when he designed his operatories.

“One of the things I wanted was to be able to hide a lot of our stuff, so when people come in, they don’t see a lot of scary-looking equipment,” he says. “We try to keep it hidden.”

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“When you hide some of the clinical items, things one might see in a doctor’s office, it puts a person so much more at ease,” Treon agrees.

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Reason 5: Lighting affects the patient’s mood.

A 2014 study out of the University of Toronto suggests that human emotions feel more intense when experienced under bright light. The findings published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests that dimming the lights can promote rationality.

Per the ADA guide, design experts tout lighting in the dental office as one of most revolutionary changes to treatment room design. Creative solutions for indirect lighting and natural light can produce a stress-free atmosphere.

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Dr. Flucke's first practice was in a strip mall, so the reception area was the only place with windows. Dr. Flucke used to ask his patients for a weather report.

“I never knew. It was like working in a mine,” he says.

When Dr. Flucke built his new practice, he took advantage of natural light by placing large windows in his operatories, which patients appreciated. Not only do they provide a light and airy environment, but the windows in the operatory open.

“When it’s 70 degrees outside, we kick the windows open, and you can hear birds chirping and the breeze comes through and it’s all nice,” he says.

Reason 6: Colors can color patient perceptions of an experience.

The colors you choose for your design can also affect a patient’s mood. While some experts claim certain colors are more relaxing than others, others argue that culture and individual experience influence color preferences. However, one truth about color is that use of it attracts the eye and creates a theme, helping patients make positive associations with the office.

Treon explains that some dentists use color to promote their brand, put their patients at ease, or convey a treatment room that is warm and inviting instead of cold and clinical.

“Some might go as far as making their cabinetry colors different in every operatory or making it the focal point of their office design,” she notes.

The ADA’s guide suggests hiring a professional to help choose a color scheme, with a focus on the establishment of these themes and presenting the desired “office image.” Dr. Flucke hired an interior designer as part of the construction team when he built his office. He appreciated her suggestions for the office since his favorite color is black and he tends to favor dark tones. They opted for bright colors in his practice, choosing the cabinet color first and working off the cabinets for the other elements like walls, flooring and upholstery. He believes in hiring professionals who are specialists for this kind of work.

“Find people that are good at what they do and let them do it. Just get out of their way,” he says.

Treon sees the same trend in cabinetry styles and finishes that dentists choose. Midmark’s Artizan® Expression line has several options for materials, colors and finishes to accommodate changing tastes.

“It doesn’t look cold and clinical. It looks like something you would see at a studio or a really nice home,” she says.

Reason 7: People like their space.

People like to have their personal space. The ADA recommends open designs, starting at the waiting room. They also recommend that all the treatment rooms are the same size and equipped the same, to prevent having a “preferred room,” which can cause problems in scheduling. However, the size of the operatory should also keep all the equipment within reach for the dentists and the assistant.

Dr. Flucke’s first practice space was less than half of what he practices in now. He described a waiting room where people sit knee to knee with strangers. With his new practice, he could spread out and give patients a little breathing room. The larger office makes people feel comfortable.

“Patients comment on the fact that it doesn’t feel crowded, that it’s very open,” Dr. Flucke explains. “It’s a lot more relaxing. It helps them deal with being in a dental environment, which most people aren’t real crazy about.”

When designing the building, Dr. Flucke had the operatory chairs face the large windows that looked out over a small wooded area.

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“They are not looking at a parking lot of a Krispy Kreme donut [store],” he laughs. “They are looking at something very peaceful. We have animals come up out of the woods, which is very nice. We have a whole bunch of bunnies lately, but we also had a family of foxes. We’ve seen some deer. Lots of stuff that adds to it.”

Obviously, not everyone can build their practice from the ground up overlooking a wooded area and all its furry inhabitants. But taking advantage of the space you have is paramount to creating a good patient experience.

Reason 8: People return because of their memory of their patient experience.

Shaw published his sixth book, “The Intuitive Customer,” last fall about how psychology influences people’s buying decisions. One of the tenets he promotes is that people don’t return to your experience because of the experience they had; instead, they return because of the experience they remember they had. Therefore, creating the best possible memory is crucial for your practice.

Memories of a patient experience form from the most intense emotional point and how the experience ended, a concept called the Peak-End Rule. Esthetic decisions, from general appearance to lighting and color choices, and even to what they don’t see (i.e. scary equipment hidden in the cabinet) all influence how these moments occur in their patient experience and the resulting memory from it.

“Creating a positive memory requires managing the peak emotion of the experience, which is probably easy to identify in a dental surgery,” Shaw notes. “It also means managing how the experience ends, and sometimes, in an everyday experience, that can be the sum of a lot of little things. The key is to recognize what those little things are.”