Designing your reception room

Sept. 1, 1996
Let`s face it: dental visits are associated with discomfort and pain. Although dentistry is no longer a pliers-and-whiskey barbershop of horrors, the image lingers on. People don`t like going to the dentist. Nor are they particularly loyal to their dentists, on the whole. Clients go to the same supermarket, restaurant or barber shop out of habit, but yearly check-ups just aren`t enough to develop their allegiance. If a new dentist opens an office closer to your patient or sends him a discount

An attractive environment emphasizing tranquility and caring makes a positive first impression.

Sarah Starr

Let`s face it: dental visits are associated with discomfort and pain. Although dentistry is no longer a pliers-and-whiskey barbershop of horrors, the image lingers on. People don`t like going to the dentist. Nor are they particularly loyal to their dentists, on the whole. Clients go to the same supermarket, restaurant or barber shop out of habit, but yearly check-ups just aren`t enough to develop their allegiance. If a new dentist opens an office closer to your patient or sends him a discount coupon, what will keep him loyal?

Because of the traditional aversion to dentistry and the lack of personal contact between dentist and patient, you must work hard to create a feeling of warmth and welcome in your practice.

Start with your reception area. Despite the trend against calling it this, your reception area is a waiting room. It`s where the clients sit and wait; where they spend much of their time. Your goal is to make it calm and inviting.

When clients first enter the office, they should feel at home immediately. This doesn`t mean you must adopt country-kitchen decorations. Rather, in lighting, color and comfort, you must cater to your clients` well-being. Here are 18 specific elements to consider when decorating or designing your reception area:


Because one of your main goals is to relieve patients` feelings of tension or fear, lean toward colors that soothe, rather than those that excite. Here are the dispositions of several colors:

- Reds, implying wealth and energy, often are used in commercial establishments, but don`t rely on them in your office. They stimulate excitement, and you want your patients to be calm.

- Dignified, sophisticated colors-black and purple, for example-detract from your personal, friendly image. For an elegant color scheme, consider working with a cool shade of gray.

- Greens, which are soothing and natural, were overwhelmingly used in institutions several years ago. Because of that, they still impart something of an institutional feel.

- Yellows go the other way- rather than being soothing, they are energetic. While you may wish to make your office cheerful, too much yellow causes tension. However, it is a safe background color.

- Unaccompanied browns may be too subdued and masculine.

- Pinks and mauves give a feeling of cleanliness and health, and if they wouldn`t offend your male clientele, are appropriate.

- Although relaxing, blues can make time seem to pass more slowly.

- White, by itself, can seem forced, but white or neutral colors provide a perfect backdrop for more brilliant hues.

Complementary colors effectively hold your room in balance-reddish-oranges with blues, for example. (Choose one color to dominate, as the busy effect of several colors fighting makes the room appear smaller.) Remember that light colors reflect light, making your rooms appear airier.

Overall, neutral, cool colors and clean lines transmit a feeling of comfort and restraint. That`s why so many medical offices decorate in beige, blue or brown: in moderation, they`re calming.


Sufficient lighting is imperative to dispel feelings of gloom; an unlit room can be gloomy, even if painted yellow and filled with flowers. Try to have light from several directions to brighten the room. Use windows, as natural lighting is airy and restful.


Clients perched on stiff, hard chairs will perceive the wait as much longer. Make it easy for them to relax.


Glass and chrome are cold to the eye, as well as the fingertips. The dark paneling you treasure may be more oppressive than friendly. Even modern furniture, with its sleek lines, can come across as clinical.

What do your design elements say to your clients? Natural wood and stone walls contribute to a friendly country ambience, but may not support the image you wish to convey. If your clientele is primarily uppercrust, a dignified, classical style may be more appropriate.

Personal Decorations

Some professionals mount the eight-foot fish they caught or display their trophies from local triathlons. Some decorating experts say nonwork-related objects imply that you`d "rather be fishing." Ask yourself: Does the object add to your patients` comfort or tranquility?

Take the fish. Will clients be uncomfortable having the creature gape at them while they wait? Something as large as an eight-foot fish can`t be ignored.

Instead of hobby-related objects, set up a display showing the personal side of your business-a bulletin board with customer compliments or thank-you letters. If your practice revolves around cosmetic work, for example, fill a wall with smiling patients` faces. Pictures, models and posters related to your work educate patients about what you do.

Wall/Floor/Window Coverings

For a relaxing atmosphere, avoid wallpaper with busy prints. Color and pattern set emotional tones, and detailed prints can be very distracting. All your tapestries, rugs, weavings and draperies should follow the rules in the color section above.

When choosing flooring, remember the purpose of your waiting room: to make your patients comfortable. Parquet flooring, for example, can convey richness, but may not be as inviting as carpeting or an Oriental rug.


Many people dislike having their back to a door. If your front door opens directly into the reception area, you may wish to create a half wall or folding-screen entryway. As long as the screens` supports are sturdy, they can be of any material: stained glass, latticework, rice paper....even a translucent divider makes patients feel secure.

In placing furniture, try to avoid the typical lines and rows. Arrange furniture as you would sofa and chairs at home, with end tables handy and plenty of space between seats.

Neatness Counts

Spotless carpets and well-kept furnishings reassure clients that your dental equipment is sanitary and up-to-date. Don`t just hire a weekly cleaning crew. Disorder creeps up on you, attacking areas that aren`t regularly cleaned, like walls and curtains.

Flowers and Plants

If not excessive, both flowers and plants add a touch of warmth. Plants tend toward the informal; cut flowers toward the elegant. In either case, keep them in good condition: remove dying leaves, prop sprawling stalks and replace wilted bouquets immediately. Consider patient allergies when choosing office plants and keep any potentially poisonous plants or flowers (like irises) away from young children.


Obviously, anything resembling an anesthetic smell is to be avoided. Equally bad is the smell of bleach. Your patients probably use it in their bathrooms at home, but, in your dental office, it makes them remember that you`ll soon be scraping their teeth. It`s a clinical smell. While you need to keep the reception area clean, avoid strong-smelling disinfectants.

Sound Control

If the walls do not reach to your ceiling, sound will carry from your working area to your reception room. This is not good. Few machine sounds are relaxing, and the noise of a dental drill tops the list of irritants. Also, the lack of privacy may bother patients as you discuss payment options or review their medical history with them.

Select reception music carefully; it should be quiet and unobtrusive and fit the tastes of most of your clients. If your patients` tastes vary significantly, play classical chamber music, quietly. (Even people who say they do not like classical music usually relax to Mozart.) Use radios judiciously, as the background chit-chat or ads are an annoyance. Even background music irritates many people, but if the alternative is hearing your drill, give them violins.


Like the music, the pictures on your walls should improve your patients` mood. Pleasant, vague outdoor scenes usually are safest.

TVs and Telephones

Opinions vary about providing TVs and VCRs for client use. Some offices wouldn`t think of giving up their wall-mounted CNN or soap operas. Others have found that TV creates discontent: Who controls the remote? Also, some clients object to being forced to listen to it.

On the other hand, instructional videos can help relieve your patients` fears. Consider assigning a separate viewing room and using your TV/VCR as an educational tool instead of a babysitter.

Another possible courtesy is a telephone for client use. Consider a separate, toll-restricted line and be sure to provide a phone book.

Entertaining Children

Reception rooms tend to have reading material for the very young (board books), the "typical" adult and the very old (large-print Reader`s Digests). Look again at your client list. Do you see many teenagers? How about early readers? Children are bored easily, but entertained easily, too, if you`ll just supply age-appropriate materials.

Even if you don`t examine children, consider furnishing a safe play area while mothers` teeth are inspected. This, alone, could make your office a welcome haven for parents.

Some dentists have installed Nintendos in their reception rooms, but who gets to play when the waiting room is full? Also, the sound effects can be irritating. Instead, set aside part of your reception area for children. Provide child-sized furniture and decorations and a basket of quiet toys for each age you deal with. This could mean crayons and coloring books, picture books, Duplos or magazines.

(If you ever entertain 2-year-olds or younger, install a high cupboard for storage of potential choking hazards or keep them at the reception desk.)

Consider the Elderly

Elderly patients may need adjustments to certain physical aspects of your office. Verify that your floor surfaces are not slippery and provide firm, standard-height chairs with arms. (Also see "Communicat-ing With Elderly Patients," Dental Economics, March 1994.)

Reading Material

Your patients will appreciate the local paper. Yes, they may already have it at home, but they`re not at home-they`re in your waiting room, waiting.

Buy an entertainment subscription to fit each primary category of clients. If half of your patients are farmers, buy Country Woman or Traditional Farming. If they are professionals, consider the Wall Street Journal. Children? Try Highlights, Cricket or Ranger Rick. Always have the most recent issues as soon as they`re available-no taking them home first!


Educational brochures can be a nice addition to your reading literature, but only if they`re professionally written and designed. Ideally, they should be low-sales, focusing on presenting facts.

Start a Scrapbook

Consider beginning a scrapbook for the waiting room. Include newspaper clippings, awards, favorite sayings, commendations and triumphs of staff members.

The purpose of the scrapbook-indeed, of your entire, visible office-is to reassure patients that they are being treated by a human being with a warm, caring personality and their best interests at heart.

An attractive environment isn`t enough. You must emphasize tranquility and caring. Gear every decoration to the comfort of your patients.

The author is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Kentucky. She writes for international business publications and customizes client newsletters. Phone: 606-226-0141.

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