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Making the waiting room a nicer place to be

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

By Deborah Weisberg

A patient with a paintbrush transformed a tiny foyer into a garden-cum-meditation room at Dr. Harvey Block's Point Breeze dental practice, where soft purples and scented candles are meant to take the edge off the clinical atmosphere.

Dentist Harvey Block's Point Breeze office was transformed by a series of pastoral murals--a birthday gift from office manager Linda Morningstar and patient/artist Judy Gozur, with help from fellow artist Tricia Sheridan, of Bolivar, PA. That's Block with Gozur. The dentist's personal motto is painted above the mural. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

"Purple is the color of spirituality," his office manager Linda Morningstar unabashedly explained.

Dr. Ted Steliotes does his drilling amid tea lights and gauzy curtains, and offers hand massages during teeth cleanings at his dental spa in McMurray -- the only one of its kind in the state.

"The older I get, the less stuffy I want to be," said Steliotes, who says his caseload has tripled since he opened his spa more than two years ago.

Bass Wolfson Pediatrics has filled its Squirrel Hill practice with books instead of toys and carried the literary theme into exam rooms. The waiting room includes a reading nook and a giant chalkboard, complete with a cushiony child-size reading chair.

"We were intent on making a beautiful office," said Dr. David Wolfson, one of the five medical partners. "One that would icontribute to children's development. So we took the time to be creative."

They are among a growing number of doctors and dentists who are doling out doses of patient friendliness in creative forms. Whether driven by competition for medical dollars, a backlash to the coldness of managed care, or the belief that healing begins in the waiting room, they are putting personality -- and pampering -- into their practice.

Evans City landscaper Tess Dunlap, who saw Block after years of avoiding dentists, likes it.

"I hated the thought of someone working inside my mouth. Coming here ... it feels like you're walking into someone's home. It's personal. It's warm."

It's just what the designer ordered.

"Waiting rooms are where people obsess and become nervous," said architect Yvette Kovats, who specializes in designing medical facilities for LDA Companies, Downtown. "You want to make the waiting room more like a living room than an institution. You want to reduce the amount of patients' stress."

"The last thing we wanted was to create a dental atmosphere," said Baden dentist John Kokai, who, with wife and dental partner Linda Kokai, transformed a strip mall office into a visual adventure with murals of waterfalls, lakes and streams in rooms with no windows. "They do help a lot to help patients relax and give a sense of space to closed-in rooms, which helps me, too, since I'm here all day."

Kokai filled his waiting room with paper mache balloons and painted the walls sky blue--a good choice, according to Kovats.

"Greens and blues are calming. So is pink, peach. You never want to use bright yellow, which makes people look jaundiced, or red, which makes you feel anxious."

Pastoral scenes and pastel hues are popular, said interior designer Bronwyn McClure-James, with Easley & Brown Inc., in Monroeville. "But not to the point of glibness."

Aquariums of exotic fish are becoming as common as television sets in waiting rooms, and get higher approval ratings from some patients.

"I wish they'd do away with the TVs, or at least put some sort of volume lid on them. It is soooo irritating!" said one patient with a chronic illness who has spent much time in waiting rooms.

At the offices of Charles Miller, S. Rand Werrin and John Gruendel in Oakland distractions include videos (that's a PBS special on rollercoasters showing here). A brass monkey even keeps an eye on hygienist Terri Romanchak as she works on patient Ed Brenckle of Glenshaw in what's called the "jungle room." (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

"Patients love our fish," said Dr. John Zitelli, a dermatologist who has a 150-gallon saltwater tank at his Shadyside and South Hills offices. "When we do patient satisfaction surveys, we get a lot of 'Thank you for not having TV.' "

Comfortable, cushioned chairs are a must, said Kovats, and even their arrangement is important. "You don't want them lined up in rows. Small seating groups, especially around a table, are much better."

But nothing is as coveted as windows, said Kovats, who included them even in the examination rooms when she helped design the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side for Pitt's head of orthopedics, Dr. Freddie Fu. "We put them high enough, and at least patients get to see clouds and sunlight. Windows offer a visual escape. Even a small window gives you a chance to go outside."

More practically, windows provide orientation to help patients and staff find their way in a building.

Zitelli not only made sure his Shadyside suite had windows in the procedure rooms,, but also dispensed with the glass enclosure around the receptionist's area. "Too cold and impersonal," he said.

Some doctors hang art ranging from Norman Rockwell to water colors. Then there's Downtown dentist Owen Cantor, who displays the work of native Pittsburgh artist Robert Qualters. Others choose photos, like the three-sister dental practice of Diane Cully, Laura Very and Susan Wall in Ross, who display childhood snapshots.

While most dentists keep their instruments out of sight to reduce anxiety, Dr. Stephen Lorenz, an ear, nose and throat specialist, has turned his collection of antique medical implements into a waiting room exhibit at his Aspinwall office. The items include 200-year-old ear trumpets and a Civil War surgical tray.

Oakland dentists Charles Miller, S. Rand Werrin and John Gruendel offer lots of visual distractions in their offices, but the most remarkable is a brass monkey that hangs from a bar on the ceiling in what they call their "jungle room."

At the offices of Dr. Ted Steliotes in McMurray the waiting area is designed to reflect a day spa atmosphere. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)
When it comes to creative decor, dentists more than doctors appear willing to go out on a limb.

"In my experience, they're more eccentric," said McClure-James. "Part of it is that, except for oral cancer, they're not dealing with patient fears around life-threatening illnesses like doctors. They're more likely to be in independent facilities than part of a hospital practice, so they're in a better position to express themselves, though no one wants to appear frivolous, and, when you're trying to balance the personal with the professional, it's better to lean toward the clinical."

But no diversion in the world can replace a good rapport between medical provider and patient, said Dr. Malcolm Weiss, a Monessen general practitioner.

"Decor isn't the critical factor. You defuse anxiety by your ability to talk to patients, he said.

"The art of medicine is not so different from the art of life. It's about how people relate."

Deborah Weisberg is a free-lance writer who covers health issues.

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