In a recent blog post, my colleague Kristin Zeit shared a study of Roemer’s Law, or rather the idea that the more beds a hospital has, the more beds it will use. In this case, the Michigan Department of Health’s Certificate of Need Program dug in a little deeper to prove merit of the concept, finding that, indeed, it holds water.

But the notion of building hospitals on a smaller scale with fewer inpatient beds isn’t necessarily staunchly argued these days—across the country we’re witnessing a shift to outpatient services as the new norm.

And for a variety of very practical reasons, there’s another norm the industry has come to embrace: private patient rooms. But despite all of the benefits this design solution has brought with it, from improving patient satisfaction to reducing hospital-associated infections, at least one medical professional is arguing that perhaps this trend isn’t as great as we all thought it was.

In a recent column for The Atlantic, Richard Gunderman, a doctor and Indiana University professor, questions the move toward seclusion, arguing that humans desire companionship and that the serious nature of health events taking place in hospitals create the type of situations that require companionship the most. 

“In some respects, hospitals increasingly resemble high-security prisons, where we go out of our way to preclude patients from interacting. In our haste to control infections, we isolate them. In our zeal to preserve confidentiality, we prevent patients from getting to know each other. They sometimes begin to feel as though they are being kept like specimens in hermetically sealed containers. To spend day after day in a single room, particularly when visits from family and friends are few and far between, can resemble a form of solitary confinement. Yet patients are not only threats to one another. They can also serve as mutual bridges to companionship and healing,” he writes.

And while I don't anticipate many members of the healthcare design industry will be jumping on an anti-private-room bandwagon, what he’s noting is recognized—just in a different way.

For example, new cancer treatment facilities very intentionally offer both public and private treatment bays, so patients have the opportunity to share their personal experiences, if desired. Family accommodations are designed into acute care inpatient rooms to better support longer, or even overnight, visits by family and friends. Healing gardens and other respite areas have come to offer private nooks for reflection and open seating areas for conversation.

A return to the wards of old may not be at the next turn of healthcare design, nor is Gunderman recommending it should be. Be he reminds us that it's always wise to consider how critical a little companionship can be, and how there isn’t just one way to provide it.