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Designing the dental practice of the future: Rethinking reception (pt. 2)

Dec. 1, 2020
In part two of this five-part series, interior designer Melissa Sprau, NCIDQ, details the ways in which dental offices can update their reception areas for optimal cleanliness and patient safety in the midst of a pandemic.

In recent years, the standard for dental reception spaces has changed. Instead of mundane, sterile environments, the best reception spaces are reflective of a practice’s values. They’re packed with style, personality, and amenities, such as refreshment bars and charging stations. While these elements are still relevant, the COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of necessity. With heightened concerns about safety and infection control, it’s important for reception spaces of the future to be as clean as they are comfortable. Whether designing a reception space from scratch or modifying an existing space, forward-thinking design details make all the difference. 

The importance of perceived cleanliness

One of my favorite parts about being a health-care interior designer is the opportunity to use data to drive design decisions. The field of health-care design is rich with research about patient experience, team productivity, and health-care outcomes, to name a few. While this research is mostly derived from hospital settings, it provides valuable insight for dental professionals. For example: Survey data has uncovered an important link between perceived cleanliness and patient experience. When patients don’t perceive a health-care facility to be clean, it not only sets the tone for a poor experience, but negatively affects loyalty, the facility’s brand, and overall reputation. Correlations between perceived cleanliness and the rate of hospital-acquired infections indicate that if patients don’t feel a facility is clean, it’s probably because it isn’t.1 In short, today’s patients value cleanliness. They’re aware of it, have come to expect it, and tend to be good at judging whether it’s present when receiving care. 

Amidst the pandemic, it’s more important than ever that dental facilities exude cleanliness, and nowhere is that more important than in reception. Smart design decisions—such as the selection of commercial-grade furniture and durable, nonporous materials—can make reception spaces easier to disinfect and appear cleaner, longer. 

Furniture considerations

Reception space furniture has been proven to contribute to the spread of microbes throughout health-care facilities. A 2018 study in the American Journal of Infection Control found that soft surfaces, like upholstered seating and curtains, create an environment where bacteria can persist for long periods of time.2 There’s also a 64% chance that contaminants will be transferred to other surfaces through touch.To help reduce the spread, reception furniture must be regularly treated with EPA-registered, hospital-grade cleaning products. The manufacturer’s directions should be followed to ensure effectiveness, and the process usually involves thoroughly wetting the contaminated surface. 

When outfitting your reception space, it’s important to be aware that not all furniture is created equally. Residential-grade or low-end commercial furniture, typically purchased from big-box retailers, is not designed to withstand EPA-registered cleaning products. Their components—soft textiles, low-grade vinyl, and even wood—can break down easily and harbor bacteria. Conversely, commercial-grade health-care furniture is built to endure heavy use and cleaning. Nonporous textiles, composites, resins, and metals can be specified, and it comes with detailed guidelines about which EPA-registered sanitizers can be used without the risk of damage. In addition, this type of furniture often has smart, subtle details like clean-out gaps between seats and backs, ergonomic arms for ease of mobility, and even antimicrobial coatings. 

Smart material selection

Seating isn’t the only element in reception that should be routinely cleaned. The CDC recommends treating all high-touch surfaces with EPA-registered, hospital-grade disinfectants.3 It’s important to choose materials that will be easy to clean and hold up over time. Durable, impervious materials can be wiped down easily and prevent moisture penetration that can lead to mold and bacteria. When outfitting reception, think solid-surface or quartz countertops, plastic laminate cabinetry with durable PVC edge banding, vinyl wallcovering, and commercial-grade vinyl flooring. It’s best to avoid paper-based wallcovering, residential or low-end vinyl flooring, and any unfinished wood, as these items can break down and harbor contaminants.

Some health-care grade materials are inherently antimicrobial, infused with copper, silver ion, or other infection-fighting additives. Antimicrobial paint, such as Sherwin-Williams Paint Shield, has microbicidal properties that kill 99.9% of bacteria within two hours. It’s registered by the EPA and effective for up to four years.4 A fresh coat of paint can go a long way, especially with this added performance.

Safety and social distancing 

There’s no telling how long social distancing will be part of daily life, so flexibility is key when thinking about the future of reception spaces. For now, seating density can be reduced to allow for six-foot spacing. Instead of sticking to one style of seat, aim for variety with two or three coordinating styles that can be arranged in small groupings. Adding visual interest and harmony in this way can prevent reception from feeling sterile. Screens and dividers can be placed between seating groups or at the reception desk for visual separation that may evoke a feeling of safety. Opting for mobile partitions versus permanent, fixed solutions allows for easy adaptation over time. 

The CDC recommends keeping hand and respiratory etiquette supplies easily accessible and posting visual alerts to notify patients of office protocols (e.g., requiring a face covering or following social distancing).3 Creating “sanitary stations,” or decorative plastic trays that contain alcohol-based hand rubs, sanitizing wipes, and tissues keeps necessary supplies looking tidy. Swapping handwritten paper signs for printed and framed versions adds polish to visual alerts. These subtle details can make CDC recommendations appear thoughtfully integrated into the reception space design. 

Impactful design details 

Beyond furniture and materials, design details can add style and safety to reception while boosting patient experience. Artwork, and especially nature-related imagery, is an evidence-based way to provide positive distraction and induce calming effects. Self-serve refreshment centers can be replaced, at least for the time being, with branded water bottles handed out at the reception desk. Automation, such as motion-activated doors, light switches, or temperature scanners, can promote peace of mind while reducing physical touchpoints. Ambient air purifiers that capture, clean, and safely recirculate air add another layer of protection. Vinyl wall graphics are a cleanable, impactful way to add style and personality to your space. 

Don’t let concerns about safety and infection control stifle your creativity. Instead, let these tips help ensure that your reimagined reception space will look great and remain clean for years to come.


1. Environmental services: Delivering on the patient-centered promise. Press Ganey. 2016. https://www.pressganey.com/docs/default-source/default-document-library/pg_compass_one_whitepaper_final.pdf?sfvrsn=0
2. Sexton JD, Wilson AM, Sassi HP, Reynolds KA. Tracking and controlling soft surface contamination in health care settings. Am J Infect Control. 2018;46(1):39-43. doi:10.1016/j.ajic.2017.08.002
3. COVID-19 guidance for dental settings. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated August 28, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/dental-settings.html
4. Sherwin-Williams Paint Shield Microbicidal Paint FAQ. Sherwin-Williams. https://www.swpaintshield.com/

Benco design manager MELISSA SPRAU, NCIDQ, brings a decade of commercial and hospital design experience to the dental industry. As a licensed interior designer with a background in health-care facilities planning and design, her approach combines best practices for health and safety with the details required to support positive patient and caregiver experiences. Sprau coaches practitioners to discover an individual brand and infuse it into the built environment, aligning quality of space with quality of care.

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