yes and no intersection signWe’ve all seen desktop-generated signs in the waiting rooms or reception areas of doctors’ offices. Presumably the intent is to help the staff and help the patient. But the problem is that regardless of what they say, they are often a signal of a culture focused on admin and processing and not on a culture of exceptional personal service.

As healthcare marketing professionals, we tend to read these signs from a marketing and patient point of view. An example is the curious sign seen recently in a dentist’s office that reads: NO GUNS BEYOND THIS POINT. We’re serious, and so was the sign.

The untold back-story is probably fascinating, although we have to wonder what problem is being solved by a paper sign. (Perhaps your six-shooter is welcome on the reader’s side of the notice.) Admittedly this is an unusual and extreme example, but it illustrates how a sign—beyond the surface message—impacts the patient experience.

Office signs shape expectations- intended and otherwise.

It’s seldom as dramatic, and far more common, than the “gun” sign. The vast majority of medical office signs are benign letter-size beings that begin life with good—if misguided—intentions. Generally speaking they are devoid of good graphic qualities, they tend to clutter the walls, and they are often unnoticed or ineffective.

But the significant concern about most signs is that they usually convey the wrong message. It’s unintentional perhaps, but many grate on the patient experience and run contrary to the practice brand. And in so doing, these well-meaning signs often shape largely negative expectations.

Here are some real-world examples…some we’ve seen and some that patients and others have reported. Administrative staff may feel signs are useful (mainly to the office), but often the hapless patient is silently being irritated, from a little to a lot.

The result is, “irritation” becomes the patient’s baseline expectation for how they are greeted and treated in an office that wants them to feel cared about, cared for and warmly welcomed. Some common examples:

  • “Riot Act” Signs are pages from the office administration and operations handbook. These extremely common signs admonish patients, among many things, to:
    “arrive early to do paperwork,” 
    “don’t be late or you’ll be rescheduled,” 
    “our office charges a fee if you don’t pay today.”

Riot Act signs want to train the patient to conform to the patient processing ritual. And they sternly warn of consequences for non-compliance.

  • “How We Do Things Around Here” Signs are similar; instructional, but without penalty. Who does this message help? And is it important enough to be noticed?
    “Notify us of any change in insurance, address, etc.” 
    “Co-payment is due at the time of your visit.”

Perception is the reality.

Consider the patient’s perspective and you can probably relate. Office signs function on two levels…what they say and how they make the patient feel. When the patient feels they are expected to comply (i.e. don’t interrupt the flow), the patient reaction can range from a “little unfriendly” to a “mildly adversarial” feeling.

It can all be innocent, unintentional, and simply a misunderstanding you say? Yes, but from a marketing perspective, signs are often symptomatic of a cultural disconnect between the promoted branding message (such as caring and concern) and the reality of the actual experience.

In effect it says that the employees don’t own the brand. “Patients are important, but the office administration is what’s truly important.” A classic illustration:

  • The “Apology-in-Advance” Signs. This category may be the most painful example of good intentions that backfire. Many medical offices have a sign that says something like:
    “Please tell us if you’ve been waiting more than (5, 10, 30) minutes.”

The word selection and the number of minutes vary from office to office. The surface message is “we’re concerned that you had to wait.” But the expectation message is: “Everyone waits; we’re not concerned about you for the first 10, 15 or 30 minutes.”

The cultural impact for the office is: “We’ve already apologized to the patients, so it’s OK to run late by 10, 15 or 30 minutes.” Or “Patients can now accept the fact that we can’t run on time. We have.”

Before you create another sign

Take an objective view about the next sign someone wants to create for posting in your reception area or at your checkout desk. Here are a number of challenge questions to consider:

  • Who does this message benefit, the office or the patient?
  • Is this sign truly consistent with our branding message?
  • Do these words belong in a sign or in a conversation with the patient?
  • Is this message truly useful information?
  • Is this a “riot act” message with consequences attached?
  • I know what’s intended, but how does this read from the patient’s perspective?
  • Would another service business (hotel, restaurant) need to post this?
  • What expectations does this sign shape or imply? For the patient? For the staff?
  • Does this message support a positive patient experience?
  • Is there a legitimate purpose or genuine need for this sign at all?

Every one of those little signs in your medical office has a voice in shaping expectations and the patient experience. Traditional (and now old school) practice operations were provider-centered. More than ever, healthcare delivery systems are (or need to become) patient-centered. And often a positive patient experience can hinge on seemingly small things.

Even those little, well-intended messages—often out of sync with the brand—shape unintended expectations.

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Stewart Gandolf

Stewart Gandolf

Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder at Healthcare Success Strategies
Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is CEO of Healthcare Success, a medical marketing and health care advertising agency. He is also a frequent writer and speaker. Most importantly, he is happily married and a "rock-n-roll daddy" to two wonderful girls.
Stewart Gandolf
Stewart Gandolf


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