Do you think you know what your patients notice when it comes to your dental office design? Are you sure? If you are like me, the answers to these questions are, “of course, I know what they notice,” and “yes, I am pretty dang sure I am right, at least when it comes to most of our patients.” It is worth mentioning, too, that my team also had the same answers as well. Well, as we finished out this year, I and my team learned something interesting. We were wrong. Like really wrong for a whole lot of our patients. As a warning, I have to give you some background first, so please be patient as you read and wonder why I am bothering you with this article.

What patients actually notice about your dental office design may surprise you
What patients actually notice about your dental office design may surprise you.

What Patients Really Notice About Your Dental Office Design

We have always felt that the appearance of our building, both inside and out, is important. We have always felt that a nice, warm, clean, inviting office is important. What we have recently learned, however, is that while still important, of course, maybe it is not as important in all the exact ways we thought. As a bit of background, we built the office back in 2006 after outgrowing our original location, which opened from scratch in 2003 after spending my first three years after dental school in the United States Air Force.

After building and moving into our current location in 2006, we have updated things along the way, as you would expect, including things like painting and replacing worn flooring, etc. During these projects, it has always been especially important to us to not have any of these projects in progress or unfinished when patients would be in the office. Our thoughts were this would not look great and turn many patients off, and of course, neither of these things were acceptable to us. Luckily for us, this had never been a real issue as the projects were all small enough, they could be completed over a long weekend.

Well, as more things aged and we looked at our facility as we came to 2022, we knew we needed to do a much larger “refresh” of the office than we had ever done before. It was time to do things like replace all the flooring, all new paint, new counters, and update the bathrooms. Our hope was we could close for a week or two and get all this done if we planned things well in advance.

Navigating Practice Renovation Challenges

As we started making plans and researching things, to our surprise, we learned if we wanted everything done in one go so patients would not see anything in the process, there was no way it was going to all happen over one to two weeks. We learned we would need to close for 5 weeks to get everything done in one swoop. As you can imagine, we were shocked. As you know and can understand, for a dental practice to close for 5 weeks is not feasible. Even if we could make it work from a financial standpoint, from a patient care standpoint, which is just not acceptable. As a result, we were forced to rethink our plans. The obvious solution was to break everything into segmented projects that could be accomplished over separate weekends since by the time we came to this solution we really wanted to get moving but had patients scheduled many months out. We did not want to push things out even farther to have even single weeks at a time to get things done.

Considering we wanted to replace all our flooring in the office, the volume of flooring to be replaced made it quickly apparent that we would have some time between weekends where some flooring would be changed over while other areas would remain old. Additionally, we knew there would be times with missing baseboards and times when some of the offices had been painted and other parts had not been yet. While having things like this was something we had been able to avoid in the past, this time around it was unavoidable. Or, should I say it was the lesser of evils as clearly closing for 5 weeks was simply not acceptable? Nonetheless, the fact these conditions would exist, and we would have patients in the office, gave us some significant stress.

Lessons Learned in Practice Updates

So why am I writing this article and why did I feel it was worth doing so? Well, it all became apparent when I tell you what we observed after our first weekend of work. On this first weekend, our dental equipment technician removed all our chairs, and the general contractor removed all the flooring in the operatories and replaced it. In addition, all the flooring in the clinical hallway was removed and replaced, and all the baseboards around the office were removed; only some of these baseboards were able to be replaced.

This left us with an odd but acceptable transition for the time being between the old carpet and the new floor, which was vinyl tile. This transition was smoothed over with heavy-duty tape. Additionally, as mentioned, we had many areas of patient traffic with missing baseboards and drywall that was damaged and had holes in it as expected from the removal of the old baseboards. Given these things and us being in the process of refreshing, we put out a “pardon our dust” sign in the reception area.

Now the interesting part that I have been leading up to. Multiple patients came in and said things like, "I saw your pardon our dust sign, but what are you doing?", "I don't see anything." Hopefully, the look of surprise and/or shock on my face was not obvious, but the bubble talk in my head was "you have got to be kidding me!".

I mean, they just walked across a transition in the floor from old worn-out carpet to nice new vinyl floor AND if that did not give it away, the transition between them was secured with tape. How can that not be noticed, I mean you just walked over it? Add to that the missing baseboards, which I guess I could understand more except for the chunks of drywall missing and hanging out. Needless to say, we were all shocked. At the same time, we were a little relieved that our patients would not be turned off. There were some that did indeed notice what was happening acknowledged it, but that number was surprisingly low.

While a nice office environment is important, but what patients notice is surprising
While a nice office environment is important, but what patients notice is surprising.

So why was this? Did they not see the changes to our dental office design? How could patients not notice holes in the walls and an obviously temporary transition between two areas of floor fashioned with tape? Well, there is no way to know for sure, but I have some guesses. Firstly, I think some people are just not observant of their surroundings. Second, as we know, many patients come to us with anxiety about even being in our office let alone having treatment. Of course, these are just two guesses, and there could be a lot of other reasons. One thing is certain, however, while I firmly believe a nice environment is important in your office, what patients notice and take in is surprising. I would love to hear your ideas why this is and your experiences with it. Thanks for reading, I hope you found this interesting and even thought-provoking.

John R. Carson, D.D.S., is a member of Spear Visiting Faculty and a contributor to Spear Digest.