“Is this a hospital or a hotel?” A New York Times article posed this question—rather cheekily, actually, complete with an interactive quiz featuring photos of actual hospitals and hotels—about a week ago. I scored a 9 out of 12. To my eye, any of the shots could have been healthcare spaces.

It’s true: There are some jaw-droppingly beautiful spaces in healthcare out there. And that’s pissing some people off. Nurses and other hospital staff, facing layoffs and increased belt-tightening, have understandably been annoyed to see their facilities get what looks like mere cosmetic upgrades in the midst of it all. It’s not as widespread as it used to be—over the past decade, there’s been a considerable pullback on opulent lobby spaces, for example—but they haven’t disappeared altogether.

HKS Inc., which had two of its clients featured in the New York Times article quiz, defended our industry (and themselves) yesterday on its website. “Some people have questioned whether high design comes at a high price,” write HKS’s Brian McFarlane and Rachel Saucier Knox. “In fact, quality design is integral to clinical excellence and operational efficiency.”

In particular, the design of the patient room as single-bedded with ample views to the outside and enough space to accommodate family is solidly backed by research that it can improve outcomes and patient perception of care. Making the patient feel more at home in his or her room, while allowing enough room for family and staff to efficiently and beneficially co-exist, is more than mere luxury. Long-term cost savings and sustainability benefits are often realized through design that happens to be beautiful, as well. The trick is making sure that facility owners—and the public at large—realize this.

Without a doubt, there are competition- and profitability-driven motivations behind some flashier design decisions. As the HKS blog points out, the Affordable Care Act will all but force hospitals to provide tangible factors to improve all-important patient satisfaction scores. Especially for big hospitals, as ambulatory care facilities take more and more of the market, drawing patients in becomes more of a challenge. Dr. John Romley, a research professor at the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Healthcare Policy and Economics of the University of Southern California, told the Times writer: “We found that patient demand correlates much better to amenities than quality of care.”

First of all: Yikes. Putting aside the fact that we as healthcare consumers need to get our priorities straight, this finding really puts providers on the spot. And is it even possible to improve patient satisfaction scores if your healthcare facility isn’t “hospitable”? Hospital systems are hiring consultants like Hospitality Quotient, the consulting arm of a restaurant group that includes New York’s Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, to make sure patients really feel like they’re being cared for (as opposed to just “treated”). And it’s working: According to Crain’s New York Business, Long Island Jewish Medical Center was only in the sixth percentile for “likelihood to recommend” in 2011 based on patient satisfaction scores. After an overhaul by Hospitality Quotient, the scores rose to the 51st percentile for 2012.  

Ultimately, “hospitality” in healthcare isn’t a four-letter word and shouldn’t be admonished as such, whether it manifests through staff-patient interactions or design of the physical space. We just need to stay honest about our motivations and make sure the cost—in actual dollars, quality of care, or public perception—isn’t so high that it outweighs the benefits.