Move over, hospitality. As healthcare systems become more and more competitive for patients, there’s another sector with valuable lessons for both providers and architects/designers: retail.

I was recently part of a group discussion on industry trends in which Avein Saaty-Tafoya, CEO of Adelante Healthcare (and this year's Changemaker Award winner from the Center for Health Design), brought up this growing connection between healthcare and retail strategizing, and it stuck with me. Hospitality thinking has been part of the healthcare approach for a while now. At its most basic, hospitality is all about the experience—relaxation, comfort, freedom from stress—and its applications to the healthcare design industry are clear. But retail thinking, to me, suggests a little more urgency. A little more salesmanship is at play, to really drive home why these products or services are better than the other guy’s and entice the consumer to embrace them.

With the Affordable Care Act giving patients much more control over their own care and where they get it, competitive urgency in healthcare is becoming very real.

In a follow-up call, Saaty-Tafoya offered more details about the role of retail thinking in her own work leading a community health organization serving 40,000 patients in the greater Phoenix area. “There are so many steps before a patient is actually in front of you as a provider, and I think we can learn a lot from retail psychology,” she says. “Retail has really had to capitalize on understanding the way their customers make choices. For decades, we in healthcare believed that if we built it, patients would find their way to us. Now, the patient is in the driver’s seat.”

People draw on all of their senses when making decisions, she continues—including “that sixth sense, the intuition”—and hospitality and retail psychology gets that. “If we can capitalize on some of that methodology, we can offer services that create a patient experience that’s desirable, and that furthers an environment of trust and loyalty.”

Desirability. That seems to be the key. And from that perspective, the evolution is easy to see. Hospital administrators of the past didn’t think about marketing or competition; patient desires weren’t a top priority. As Saaty-Tafoya puts it, the message providers sent to patients for years was: “We’ll get to you when we’re ready.”

But as competition grew and expectations changed, hospitality thinking helped improve the patient experience, sending the message that “we’ll take care of your needs. You come to us with a problem, and we’ll try to fix it.”

This next phase, though, goes beyond meeting needs to really exceeding them—by anticipating them and catering to them, by addressing overall wellness as opposed to case-by-case problem-solving. It’s about attracting a loyal customer for life.

Saaty-Tafoya points out that too many systems are still stuck in phase 1 of that evolution, or only go part of the way into phase 2. And the design of the facilities is a huge contributor to the problem. “We talk a lot in the healthcare design community about beautiful public areas, but then it’s like Oz: you walk behind the curtain and it could be 1963,” she says. “Long, stark corridors and row after row of doorways that are shut.”

To really achieve phase 3, designers and architects must be more vigilant than ever. “From the moment somebody drives onto the campus, to wherever they’re going for the core of their services,  to the experience of exiting the system, we have to pace ourselves, and take a snapshot of each part of that experience,” Saaty-Tafoya says. “And we shouldn’t shortchange any step in the process. Because when we do that, those are our moments of truth—when you lose loyalty and trust.”