Over the past decade, hospitals and private medical practices have been moving toward creating a warmer, more inviting environment for patients. This is particularly true in women’s health care.

Many Ob/GYN offices are trying to create an almost spa-like waiting room with massage chairs, fresh flowers and soft music and lighting. Labor and delivery units in many hospitals have moved to all private rooms with a hotel-like feel, flat-screen televisions and in-room refrigerators.

In the past year, a brand new hospital has opened in my region and patients are flocking there. It is a beautiful building with state-of-the art design and technology, and the advertising campaign has been amazing. It feels almost impossible to compete with the novelty and luxury of the new hospital.

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But as with many things in life, the outward appearance is not always reflective of what is happening on the inside. I’ve had patients return to our office unhappy with the care they received at the newer place, with many reporting that it was impersonal and that they felt like just a number. A few patients have reported a “factory-like” environment, where they were moved in and out without much more than cursory interaction.

A few years ago, before I became a midwife, I referred my sister to a popular new gynecology practice that boasted spa-like ambience. She reported back that although the waiting room was lovely, she’d spent so much time there that it was hardly a relaxing experience. The actual exam was no different than any gynecological exam she’d had at any other practice, and in her mind, there was no amount of ambience that could change her experience. 

I work in a private office, but it is by no means spa-like. In fact, most of the providers here complain about the poor design and clinic-like environment. Our labor and delivery unit is lovely and functional, but not brand-new or particularly fancy. We would all like to move to more appealing and practical environment. In both places though, it is the care that patients receive that makes the true difference and makes them feel welcome.

Boutique or spa-like environments only go so far in health care — there needs to be a balance. If providers cannot match the beautiful atmosphere with quality patient-centered care and a personal touch, wise patients will quickly see beyond the facade and choose to spend their health-care dollars elsewhere.

Robyn Carlisle, MSN, CNM, WHNP, works as a full-scope midwife at University Doctors and Kennedy University Hospital in Sewell, N.J.