There's not much to like about a doctor's office. It's a place too often associated with pain, embarrassment and the secret dread that a lump, rash or shortness of breath may be cause for serious concern.
But what if the waiting room were more like a living room, with comfortable chairs, warm lighting and attractive paintings? What if the examination rooms were fitted with wood cabinetry instead of stainless steel? If the walls were painted with flowering vines, not hung with lurid renderings of vital organs?
Increasingly, doctors are using decor to make their offices feel less forbidding. They are consulting with interior designers to select colors that soothe or cheer, seating that offers comfort and support, lighting with less glare.
Some are also working with architects to make the exterior design less institutional-looking: An orthodontist's office is being designed to look like a Greek villa; a physician's building is being remodeled to resemble a Key West resort.
The rationale is simple: An attractive, comforting environment helps patients relax ” and relaxed patients tend to respond better to treatment.
David Marcantel, an obstetrician/gynecologist, took a more patient-friendly approach when planning his new offices.
"We wanted it to have a more homelike feel, not too clinical," says Marcantel.
The new furnishings are strikingly different from the serviceable seating, commercial floor coverings and fluorescent lighting in his previous office ” but still functional and easy to clean.
His wife, Stephanie, conducts the "grand tour," pointing to walls faux-finished in Tuscan shades of ochre and terracotta, hand-painted at the corners with trailing vines. She shows off exam rooms finished with marble-topped wood cabinets and elegant draperies, and a monitoring room furnished with a cushy recliner.
"We want this to be a place where women feel at home," she says.
She wraps up the tour in the waiting room, where silk-flower arrangements, a flat-screen TV in a painted-wood console, and wall sconces and table lamps enhance the decor. The wide, upholstered chairs with sturdy wooden arms were selected with the comfort of heavily pregnant women in mind.
The room's focal point is a magnificent reception desk of hand-carved mahogany.
Most doctors' offices have a built-in reception desk with a Formica counter and sliding-glass windows, explains Donny Saxon, owner of Saxon-Clark Furniture in Orlando, Fla., who decorated the Marcantel offices.
"There was just one problem" with the mahogany desk, says Saxon. "It was so big, we had to take a wall down at the top of the stairs to get it to the office, then build the wall back up again."
But it was worth it, Saxon says. The $18,000 piece commands pride of place, surprising patients with its ornate elegance.
The move toward more comfortable ” and comforting ” medical offices is more than a trend, says Terri Maurer, a former president of the American Society of Interior Designers from Akron, Ohio.
"I believe this kind of change is more a dawning of reality," she says. The reality that going to the doctor is stressful for most people.
If designers can create a nonthreatening, relaxing atmosphere, she says, it helps alleviate stress and fear. And that can work toward the healing process "as much as a prescription or therapy."