I am at the office of a new doctor, a specialist who will give me his opinion on something important, although not life-threatening.
The wait has been long, but finally the nurse calls me in, settles me into an examination room and leaves.
I glance around. The examination table, with stirrups, looks older than I am. The linoleum floor has scuffs dating from the era when my children dropped things. There is no computer. One small counter is covered with boxes and bottles.
This could be a 1960s movie set.
My eyes linger on the only wall decoration: a poster labeled “Breast Cancer” with drawings of the interior of the breast as it deteriorates in stages I-IV. I guess the doctor uses this visual aid when talking to some patients, but since I’m not here for breast cancer, it only reminds me of the suffering of other women — and my mother’s death.
I continue to wait in solitary confinement. My eyes keep going back to that poster.
“Let me out of here!” I want to scream.
A few days later, my friend Alice tells me about her recent visit to an imaging facility in El Dorado County for a “call back” mammogram.
She is directed to a tiny changing room where the only decoration is a framed document from www.thebreastcancersite.com. In bold print it states, “Every 2 minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer,” followed by other alarming statistics.
Because she has been “called back,” Alice can’t help but imagine herself as the next one to be diagnosed. Then she thinks about the document.
“This is not a women’s gym where it might be good to remind people to have a mammogram,” she says. “Women are already here.”
Why scare them further?
After she changes, she moves to the waiting area which offers a different kind of “sales.” It features a poster explaining why the type of mammogram offered at this facility is better than the alternative. An enlarged image of breast tissue, labeled with medical terms, is used to point out differences. Unless you have technical knowledge of mammography, the poster is incomprehensible.
It hangs on a wall painted pink. Pink ribbons abound in the room.
Alice says, “I suppose in their minds they think this is positive, but to me it was all about cancer.”
From these two incidents (Alice did not have cancer), a column was born in my head, and I asked other friends for input. From their outpouring I learned two things.
First, not all doctors are deaf and dumb to the wordless impact made by their waiting and examining rooms. Several people described offices with warm colors, train sets and pleasant posters. Some facilities in Davis get high marks.
My friend Dick from up north wrote, “My last doctor, who just retired, was an avid outdoorsman and environmentalist. He had beautiful photographs of central Oregon on his walls. I miss him.”
A friend who is a physician told me she puts pictures of kittens on the ceiling above her examining table and finds they generate friendly conversations that begin with, “Oh look, kittens” or “I have 4 cats” or “I like dogs.”
The majority of responses, however, told me that bad decor is widespread and can turn you cynical.
My son-in-law, who recently visited a Chicago-area opthalmologist for eyelid problems, wrote, “He had gross pictures of worst-case-scenario eyelid infections. That’s probably intended to make you feel better about your own problems. Or maybe to get more business using fear-based tactics.”
After I read his message, I remembered my visit to a Sacramento dermatologist whose waiting room posters featured aging, wrinkled faces on ads for plastic surgery.
With help from my friends, here are some recommendations.
Doctors, please remember that when we come to you we are sick or anxious or both. It is not reassuring to wait in a room where the furniture and magazines are so old that we begin to wonder how up-to-date the doctor is.
Don’t let your waiting room say to your patient, “Seeing the doctor is going to be a slightly miserable experience and we don’t care.”
Think about your examining room, too. We understand that you may want to point to illustrations. But keep in mind that for every person who wants to see exactly what stage IV colon cancer looks like, dozens of other patients see it, too.
As my friend Sue put it, “the goal should always be to make the patient comfortable and relaxed in the waiting room and exam rooms.” Hang serene posters on the wall. Save the rest for brochures.
Above all, give décor some thought. You probably aren’t very good at decorating — that’s why you went to medical school — but someone on your staff knows more than you do.
Respect that person. Respect your patients.
One friend responded to my inquiry with a description of what she saw on the wall of her veterinarian.
It was a cartoon of a receptionist saying, “The doctor is with another patient; so please sit and stay.”
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org