Recently I’ve noticed an increased emphasis among health care leaders to pay homage to the trend of incorporating lessons from the hospitality industry (for a great example, see With an increased focus on the importance of patient experience, many health care leaders appear to turn outward for successful examples to emulate. This is a sound logic, as much of the improvement seen in travel and hospitality (think Ritz Carlton) can inform a thoughtful health care executive in improving metrics on patient experience.

For instance, much research has been put into creating physical environments that are pleasing to customers, including colors, scents, and physical cues such as signs and queuing prompts that help people find their way. Moreover, how front-line employees treat customers at critical times such as check-in are quite similar to admission processes in health care. Additionally, while hotels and resorts provide comfortable rooms for wellness and comfort, hospitals provide similar physical environments designed to accommodate patients in the same way. There is much health care can learn from hospitality. However, while we should continue to observe and imitate the successes that highly successful hospitality firms have demonstrated, I urge health care executives to consider the differences between hospitality and health care before they fully commit to implementing important changes.

First, consider the goals that hotel guests and patients have in each of these settings (c.f., Gutman, Jonathan (1997), “Means-End Chains as Goal Hierarchies,” Psychology & Marketing, 14 (6), 545-60.). When traveling, most of us desire accommodations that are comfortable, but we dream about activities outside of the room, perhaps even outside of the hotel or resort. When traveling, our goals are usually recreation, sightseeing, seeing family or friends – creating memories that are pleasant and enjoyable. We plan ahead, with the goal that our time with be maximized with activities that are aligned with our vacation goals. When we are in the role of a patient, our goals are not directed toward creating pleasant memories of relaxation or recreation. Rather we are focused on survival, wellness, and treatment. The goals that we place as primary are sufficiently different as to direct our attentions, attitudes, and actions in different directions. Thus, while we may require some of the same comforts of a hotel, the patient is in a gown, hooked up to an IV, and awakened in the middle of the night for blood work or other diagnostics. These differences in goals and conditions are sufficient to cause us to consider what they mean in health care facility and service design.

Secondly, consider also the context of health care and the professionals that deliver it (c.f., Lovelock, Christopher H. (1983), “Classifying Services to Gain Strategic Marketing Insights,” Journal of Marketing, 47 (3), 9 – 18). While hospitality employees are highly trained and skilled, they do not approach the training and demands that are placed on health care providers such as nurses and physicians. Health care providers are entrusted with our very lives, and are treating patients’ physical conditions and sense of dignity. Additionally, the dimensions of service quality upon which customers (and patients) judge a service are broader for health care services than for hospitality services (think about technical skill or clinical quality and what its counterpart might be in a hotel setting). The point here is that knowledge-intensive businesses such as health care require a much broader integration of provider-customer information as to warrant resources (physical, mental, and emotional) from patients that are not often so completely required of travelers.

So what is a health care executive to do with integrating hospitality successes into their organization? My recommendation is to do so carefully, with changes that allow for the conditions mentioned above. Specifically, recognize that satisfaction with a service is driven in part by goal attainment, especially for patients (c.f., Orsingher et al. (2011), “Consumer (Goal) Satisfaction: A Means-End Chain Approach,” Psychology & Marketing, 28(7), 730-748). Factors such as food quality, bed comfort, and noise at night – physical environmental components – are hygiene factors. That is, they only stand out by exception, when they are noticeably deficient. So, endeavor to improve these conditions, but only within the confines of how they dictate how personal interactions occur between providers and patients (research supports the notion that patient satisfaction is more a result of staff interaction than facilities: That is, the critical incident that motivates most patients to be fully satisfied is the moment-of-truth conversation and clinical treatment with their physician/primary provider. Recognition of this insight should motivate executives to allocate resources according to each dimension’s importance in driving important patient metrics.

Finally, I urge health care executives to recognize that there is significant merit in the argument that both travelers and patients seeking wellness may well respond to very similar initiatives in improving service quality. Providing health coaching, nutritional advice, exercise programs, and the like may well improve the health and satisfaction of specific patients. These may not be important factors to patients admitted through the emergency department (ED), but most likely will be appreciated by patients battling chronic illness. Endeavoring to become a facility that is sought out, rather than relegated to a place of last resort, is an admirable goal. It may not be a sufficient arena to support all competitors, however.

What do you think?