Expectations for patient engagement and interaction have evolved dramatically in recent years, thanks in large part to the consumer experiences we all have on a daily basis. Susan B. Frampton, president of Planetree International, explored this concept in her closing keynote presentation, “The Brave New World of Patient Engagement,” at the recent Healthcare Design Expo & Conference in Phoenix.

For instance, she shared her recent discovery of the app Airport Sherpa, which connects travelers with a service that brings dining and shopping to them, from any terminal, to wherever they might be inside an airport. She said it never occurred to her that she’d require or desire such an amenity, but she downloaded the app just in case—“this is where we’re at today.” It’s an example of how entrepreneurs of the world are anticipating the needs of consumers well before they realize those needs themselves.

Themes of convenience, access, and cost effectiveness define the consumer experience. “This is setting the bar for what our customers are expecting of us,” Frampton said of the healthcare industry. Retailers aren’t just setting the bar on the traditional goods and services they sell, either; they’re setting them for healthcare. The desire for immediacy in all things means that patients are looking for that in provider response, care, treatment, and follow-up—something CVS and Walgreens are getting right.

And in the meantime, as traditional providers work to offer care that’s on par with the retail environment, Frampton reminded the HCD Expo audience that what the 1,000+ retail clinic locations operating today aren’t offering is a patient-centered healing environment. Too often waiting areas consist of folding chairs placed in a corner of a store or flu shots are administered in open spaces hidden only by screens. “They need your help. They need your help badly,” she said. “I’m really hoping some of you will figure out a better way.”

But beyond the physical realm, technology is also accelerating expectations for patient engagement, she continued. Telehealth is gaining ground, as are more complex approaches like the virtual ICU or even the “hospital in the home” through which chronic conditions are managed. Individuals can use genetic testing services to identify their risk for cancer, and smart pill bottles will send alerts to take medicine.

However, Frampton said that even while these factors might be acknowledged, healthcare leaders are often balancing competing priorities and haven’t been presented with clear evidence that engagement affects outcomes. In response to this, Planetree partnered with the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) two years ago to identify what approaches are essential to both engage patients and improve outcomes.

For starters, NAM is redefining patient-centered care to more clearly articulate the element of patient involvement in fulfilling their personal goals for care. A big piece of that, Frampton said, is shared decision-making to reduce surgeries and hospitalization—the idea being that engaged, informed patients have better outcomes and incur lower costs.

But what about design? Frampton said the physical environment is another important part, supporting how and whether patients are able to engage in their care. For example, research shows that loud noises, bright lights, food and water restrictions, painful stimuli, and so on results in allostatic overload, or simply wear and tear on the body. This causes patients to become more vulnerable to other illnesses, as well.

So if designers have ever wondered if design makes a difference, “it absolutely does. You are making a contribution to improve peoples’ health,” she told the audience. In fact, in a study that involved showing patients images of patient-centered versus non-patient-centered environments, 73 percent of the time participants chose the Planetree-supported images.

Frampton said engagement can best be supported by ensuring both inpatient and outpatient environments or even those at home or in a retail clinic are welcoming to families in the care process and reduce elements like noise and unnecessary stimuli. “You guys have a very important contribution to make,” she said.