Easy practice makeovers


Does dingy, drab, or dungeon-like describe your practice? It might be time for a makeover. Use these quick and thrifty ideas to take your practice from blah to beautiful.

Have you moved a picture recently in your practice? If you did, would the wall be a different shade of white underneath? You might not own the hospital, but you do work there every day. And if you're going to spend most of your waking life somewhere, you have a pretty strong investment in how the place looks, smells, feels, and sounds.

When clients walk through the door, they should immediately make eye contact with the greeter, says Wendy Wheeler, design director at BDA Architecture. "Make it obvious where clients should go," she says. "Clients appreciate being received well."

Need another reason for a change? "The way a hospital looks and smells and whether it's clean or dirty sends messages," says Mark Hafen, AIA, co-owner of Animal Arts in Boulder, Colo. "Clients use these messages to determine the quality of medical care your practice offers." Here's a look at some steps you can take to give your practice a facelift on any budget.

Kill your clutter

Cost: $0

Here's a free solution: Clear the clutter in the front, says Wendy Wheeler, the director of design at BDA Architecture in Albuquerque, N.M. Walk up to your counter. Is there a place to write a check, or have the pamphlets, freebies, and gee-gaws been breeding their way across the front desk? If you can't shoulder your way past the paper, it's time to make some tough decisions. Choose one or two displays, and get rid of the other three. Can you hand clients a pamphlet when they enter or leave instead of stacking them on the desk to collect dust? Clean and clutter-free is in, and it definitely looks more professional.

South Suburban Animal Hospital uses accent paint to grab clients' attention and add an element of surprise in their canine boarding area.

"A lot of reception areas look one of two ways," Hafen says. "They're cluttered and full of white walls and posters or they're all wood siding, the funny old basement rec room look. With either of these, clearing out the clutter and getting rid of the posters that are taped up and tacked on the wall will be an improvement."

Frame the posters if you like them. If you don't, take them down. But either way commit to having something decent on the walls.

A presentation wall with your practice's logo can add interest to your reception area. The wall can also serve as a screen for an administrative alcove, where front office staff can retreat to return clients' calls, send and receive faxes, or complete paperwork out of sight.

Smother the smell

Cost: $4 to $400

Smelled wet dog lately? Or pet drool? What about cat urine? Our experts agree that odor is one of the first things clients notice when they enter a practice. Maybe you lost your sense of smell six years ago in an accident you'll only refer to as "the pooper scooper incident." Unfortunately, your squeamish clients just can't handle the gently wafting odor of Bowser's barf. Go figure.

Quick color guide

With these lightweights in mind, take a stroll around your practice and identify your not-so-fresh areas. Your fix may be as simple as a $4 can of odor eliminator or you may need to bring out the big guns with a $500 mega-watt, industrial-strength, super dooper professional air purifier.

There are many fresh scents on the market today, says Charisse Lombardo, an interior designer and president of CLM Interiors in Ridgefield, Conn. Just make sure you choose a solution that takes away odors instead of combining with them.

Borrow your art

Create with color

Cost: $30 per gallon of paint

Colors go through trends, just like fashion, diets, and politics. And there's a psychology to colors. For example, red causes people to feel anxious or excited, while blue is calming. And too much blue can be a bad thing, too, because it's a cold color. (See our "Quick Color Guide") To achieve a current look that's client-friendly, Larry Lariviere, an interior designer and owner of Larry's Custom Interiors in Portsmouth, N.H., says you might try painting the bottom portion of a wall rust or burnt orange and use an aquamarine on top. Then split the wall with a white chair rail. "The aqua color is calming, and the rust color adds an accent without overwhelming," Lariviere says.

Make sure you're designing the room instead of just adding decorations, Wendy Wheeler says. What does that mean? Think of it this way: If your exam room or reception area were empty of furniture, pictures, and knickknacks, would it still be pleasing? In this example, architectural trim and molding were used to add character to the space. Small accents of a playful painted cat mural at top complement artwork and wall decorations.

You can also use light and color to create spatial illusions, Wheeler says. For example, you can make an 8-foot ceiling look higher by shining light on it, or you can make a large room feel cozier with dark flooring.

Dig your doorknob

Cost: About $100

Twist, turn, pull, push. Is the doorknob dirty, loose, or wimpy? Does it dangle or is it permanently frozen in the locked position so you have to prop the door open with a door wedge or someone's old tennis shoe? "The first thing people touch is your doorknob," Hafen says. "So if you have any money to spend, that's the best place to spend it." Next step: Feel the door. People like the sensation of a heavier door with a bit of weight behind it, Hafen says.

Acacia Animal Health Center uses accent paint to add visual interest to a children's waiting area. Wendy Wheeler suggests using a combination of two to three colors-two accents and one neutral or one accent and two neutrals. "So if you find a turquoise paint you really like, don't paint all four walls turquoise, paint one wall turquoise," she says. Then you can use neutrals to give your turquoise wall more impact.

Cost: $5 to $2,000 or more

Light it up

Ever get that blind sensation when you walk from the bright sunlight into the dim, dreary cave that is the waiting area at your doctor's office? "When you walk into a place that's dark and dingy, it can feel depressing," Hafen says. The solution: Hunt down and replace the lights in the fixtures with flickering or dead bulbs. Next, use daylight-corrected bulbs in your fluorescent fixtures and add track lighting for a little sparkle and personality, Hafen says. Bulbs cost as little as $5 apiece, while each light on a track could cost $150. Depending on the space and the number of lights you add, you can install track lighting for $500 to $2,000. Just remember, you may need to call in the electrician for extra wiring.

While he was out

As long as you're looking up, take a stroll around your practice and check out the fixtures. Do you use the same type of lighting front to back, throughout your practice? You may need bright, direct light in your treatment area, Wheeler says, but your clients will feel more comfortable waiting in a reception area that features softer, warmer, layered light. She suggests changing up your lighting based on space and using different fixtures to offer direct and indirect light.

Some final guidelines

A word of warning to aspiring interior decorators: You're trying to create a space where everyone feels comfortable, not just you. Your goal is to match your practice's mission and clientele. Would Mr. Hogan and his hulking husky feel relaxed and welcomed in the pink retro Hello Kitty exam room you're dreaming of? If the answer's no, try again.

The exception: If your practice's mission or clientele is geared around a theme, you can bend the rules a little. For example, Lombardo says that if you work at an equine practice, a subtle cowboy theme might be appropriate. Just be careful, she warns. It's easy to go overboard.

"Your reception area should provide a balance of styles," Lombardo says. "It should be a design that most people would say, 'OK, I wouldn't do this in my home, but it's nice here.'"

Ready to get started? A good first step: Hafen suggests walking through your practice with a clipboard. Note the things that bother you most, and try to look at the practice as if you were a client.

Once you've developed a list of proposed changes, share your suggestions with the doctor. "Focus your pitch on how the changes will make your co-workers and clients feel," Hafen says. "These are quality of life issues that can lead directly to a better performing and more motivated staff and a renewed enthusiasm for your work. And if clients feel more comfortable in the practice and they enjoy being there, they may be more apt to spend money."

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