According to a survey released by the Beryl Institute earlier this year, 84 percent of healthcare organizations rank the patient experience in their top three priorities. And yet, 58 percent claim they haven’t made investments specifically related to improving the patient experience. (For a more complete analysis of the survey, read Jennifer Kovacs Silvis’s June 20 blog post.)

I wonder how many of the hospital leaders surveyed consider the design of the physical environment as one of those investments?

Beryl’s definition of the patient experience is “the sum of all interactions, shaped by an organization’s culture, that influence patient perceptions across the entire continuum of care.”

As an organization, the Beryl Institute is mostly focused on the interactions patients have with their caregivers. And without a doubt, the front-line staff is the most important influence on the patient experience. Investing in creating a more caring, healing culture is a strategy more healthcare organizations could pursue to improve the patient experience.

And that strategy should include improving the design of the physical environment. Because the interactions that patients and staff members have with the environment help support a caring, healing culture.

This is not news to most of you. But it’s a way to frame the discussion for your next renovation or new building project. And while architecture provides the “bones” for the building, it’s the interior design elements that touch the patients and staff the most. Things like color, materials, furniture, and artwork.

I’ve seen so many plain vanilla clinical spaces in new hospitals recently that I wonder where this discussion is breaking down. Often, it comes down to budget. Or maybe a lack of interior design expertise/talent on the team.

But that shouldn’t prevent healthcare organizations from creating spaces that evoke caring and healing, because the best healthcare interior designers can do great things even on a limited budget.

Healthcare organizations have also come under the microscope recently for designing spaces that are more hotel-like than hospital-like. Some worry that this is helping to drive up healthcare costs, but they don’t understand that the return on investment for these design features and amenities far outweighs the costs over the 40-year lifespan of the building.

A reporter for the New York Times recently came to the conclusion that the main reason hospitals have private rooms with couches, flat screen TVs, and views of nature and other amenities like room service or nail salons is marketing.

But I think the reporter used the wrong terminology. The main reason U.S. hospitals are designing these types of spaces and adding amenities isn’t marketing. It’s to improve the patient experience, which is now tied to reimbursements measured by HCAHPS surveys.  The patient experience has also been linked to improved outcomes, which saves money. (For more on the NYT article, see Kristin Zeit’s blog “The Demonization Of Hospitality In Healthcare.”)

Sure, it’s also about attracting and retaining patients. With many healthcare consumers increasingly managing their own health plans, they’ll be looking to make more informed decisions about where they get their care. If they don’t have a good experience, they might not come back.

My investment advice for creating a caring, healing culture? Start with the design of the physical environment.