In 2006, Dr. Steven Horowitz offered architects and other planners key advice about renovating Stamford Hospital's Rosenthal Cardiology Unit to make it more patient-friendly, suggesting an expanded dining area with refrigerator, coffee machine and other amenities for patients and their families.

He said color schemes were changed from a clinical white to warmer earth tones, consistent with the Planetree philosophy of creating a less institutional feel.

"We changed the blueprints to move in a more Planetree direction," he said. "The whole feel was warmer and soothing to prompt healing."

The nonprofit Planetree group, which was formed in 1978, was founded by Anna Thieriot, who after a frustrating experience in the hospital founded the group to encourage more care facilities to incorporate a more personal touch and involve patients in their own care.

This month, Stamford Hospital is celebrating its Planetree Designation as a patient-centered hospital, after a rigorous review this fall to gauge the hospital's effort to integrate services to provide "patient-centered" care, which covers a gamut of programs and daily pastimes undertaken to improve the satisfaction of both patients and their families, officials said.

While the hospital has been in the nonprofit Planetree Organization for eight years, the designation represents a higher level of recognition, said Deborah Fedeli, the hospital's executive director of patient centered services.

"We were looking, like most businesses do, for opportunities to provide the best services to your constituents, and Planetree was just something that made a lot of sense to us," Fedeli said.

Over the past eight years Planetree's performance measurements have been incorporated through successful programs, including the hospital's integrative medicine program, as well as smaller measures to tailor treatment to specific needs and routines of patients, Fedeli said.

In recent years, the hospital has also been proactive in balancing clinical needs with relatives' need and desire to visit patients, said Ellen Komar, the chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care services.

Care staff will work with relatives to establish a schedule that, whenever possible, will slot treatments like physical therapy or dialysis at times that do not collide with visits, Komar said.

"If the only time they can come is at 8 p.m., we make sure that fits with their treatment schedule and that they have access," she said.

The Planetree philosophy emphasizes having flexibility to ensure that family and loved ones are involved and informed "care partners" in the recovery and healing process, Komar said; as part of the Care Partner program, nurses and doctors work with a point person in a patient's family to share important updates about care and other information.

As part of the Care Partner program, family members can also receive necessary training and instruction in advance of a patient's discharge on how to perform necessary assistance to patients correctly, which can include everything from bathing to assisting them with physical therapy exercises, Komar said.

"We make sure they are provided with education and resources so they can get this education before they go home and not on the day of discharge," Komar said. "They may need to help with activities of daily living like bathing and other tasks which the patient won't be capable of doing."

Annike Spijkers, a licensed massage therapist and integrative medicine practitioner, oversees staff massage therapists and volunteers who handle patient demand for massage therapy, part of Planetree's requirement to offer access to "caring touch," which includes massage, Reiki and other therapy.

"It helps them get through their day and eases anxiety, provides pain relief and helps them relax," Spijkers said. "Overall, it makes their hospital stay a little nicer."

In 2011, an outreach program for hospital staff, the Peer Support Team, received national recognition with a Spirit of Planetree Award.

Martin Burke, a registered nurse in the hospital's inpatient psychiatric unit who started the program, said the on-staff volunteers who are trained in critical incident stress management have provided counseling and assessment on 30 to 50 occasions in the past three years, including advice on financial, relationship and other personal issues.

During the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake in 2010, the volunteers helped hospital staff from Haiti through the period of uncertainty about their relatives' welfare.

"If you have happy caregivers, you have happy patients," Burke said.

Fedeli said she believes the Planetree approach has helped contribute to increased patient satisfaction.

Another popular program instituted for patients and families is At Your Request, which allows patients to order their meals from a menu on demand and choose when it arrives, she said.

Spouses or other immediate relatives are also entitled to two meals a day during a patient's stay.

"There are so many things (Planetree) involves, but what I can't stress enough is that our patients are a top priority and we really consider not just the patient's clinical needs, but also their personal needs," Fedeli said. "Whether you are a housekeeper or a nurse, our employees know everything we do impacts the patients."