How often have you heard, “We don’t want this hospital to feel sterile and institutional?” How often have you said it yourself as if this were something completely sensible?

Maybe it’s time we all took a deep breath and asked ourselves, “In a world where hospital acquired infections are increasing, what’s wrong with a sterile environment?”

Of course, I am making a play on two separate meanings of the word sterile to make a point.

Sometimes it seems to me that in our industry’s approach to creating hospitals that look like spas, resorts, or anything but hospitals we have lost sight of an essential truth. No matter how beautifully designed, a hospital is a place where lives begin, end and are often irrevocably changed in between. They are serious places where people are forced to make some of the most important decisions of their lives. When patients and staff make these decisions in an environment that does not honestly reflect this context do they make the right decisions? As designers, shouldn’t we be concerned about the cognitive dissonance involved in functioning at a life and death level in a space that looks like a five-star hotel? Positive distraction has its place, but I believe a hospital’s design should tell the truth about the role it plays in a community.

It is true that patients and staff seek facilities that make them feel comfortable and I am by no means promoting a return to the days of white floors and blank, beige walls. However, we have the opportunity to define an environment that is unique among all building types—that speaks to the extraordinary expertise and technologies within.

We need to think about a design aesthetic that is based on the true purpose of a hospital and goes beyond the idea of hospital as a spa. We can and should design beautiful, healing and inspiring spaces, but ones that allow and celebrate the significance of the events and decisions that are made in the hospital. It isn’t a question of either-or, warm or cold. It’s a question of appropriate balance. In our zeal to hide the obvious purpose of a hospital, we may be in danger of losing sight of that balance.

Mark Patterson, AIA, ACHA, LEED AP, is vice president and practice leader at SmithGroup, a leading healthcare architecture and engineering firm with 10 offices across the U.S.