How can we reduce hospital-related stress? Look to nature

What’s happening? Adding green spaces to large hospitals can help reduce stress among patients, staff and visitors, a paper in the Health Environments Research & Design Journal reports. The study recruited 74 participants who viewed the same hospital layout in an immersive virtual environment and completed wayfinding tasks. One group saw nature views and large windows along corridors, while the other saw solid walls with no daylight or nature. Those in the green space group took less time and walked a shorter distance to complete the tasks. Mood states such as anger and confusion were also significantly reduced. (Health Environments Research & Design Journal, West Virginia University)

Why does this matter? It’s well documented that green and blue spaces are beneficial for physical and mental health – to the extent that some doctors are even prescribing them. Hospitals have also been recognising these therapeutic advantages, and many have created healing gardens to support their patients, visitors and staff. New buildings have also been incorporating nature into their architecture.

For hospitals where this is not achievable, bringing nature inside – through biophilic design – can also improve wellbeing. Some concerns about introducing real plants into hospital areas, with infection control being the primary worry, does not mean nature can’t be a feature on wards or in corridors and waiting rooms. Even fake plants can have a relaxing effect, as can aquariums.

Not just greenery – Placing images of nature on walls and introducing design with nature-like features can also have a positive impact, especially in hospitals where windows are smaller or where views of the outside world are limited. Natural ventilation is another promoter of wellbeing and healing, but is dependent on the local environment, including temperature and air pollution levels. Having open windows could also pose a safety risk for some patients, such as the young and vulnerable, so smart designs here are key.

Changing the tone – Reducing stress and anxiety among patients can be also be achieved through colour. Replacing stark white walls, furniture and bed linen in wards and waiting rooms with more light and natural tones will have a positive impact. It’s important to note this must take into account patient’s ages and their conditions. Jaundice, for example, would be hard for staff to assess if yellow or blue colours are dominant.

Sounding off – Hospital sounds are another source of stress and anxiety – we’re all familiar with beeping monitors, alarms, slamming doors and shouting. It was this experience that led Washington-based musician Yoko Sen to create a social enterprise to improve the hospital soundscape. She’s currently working with medical equipment manufacturers, including Philips, to change how their devices sound so they are less disturbing.

Sound therapy is already known to improve wellbeing, and the University of Alberta is taking this one step further. They are developing an AI-based system for intensive care patients, often limited in their movement or unconscious, that responds to their pulse via a finger-worn sensor to automatically select and play a soundscape appropriate for them.

A role for the metaverse? VR technologies could also play an increasing role in the future. It’s been demonstrated that escaping the hospital environment through virtual reality can reduce pain, stress and anxiety during medical procedures in both adults and children. It’s also been suggested that intensive care patients could benefit, although more research is needed to support this idea. For nurses, it can help them better manage stress and become more resilient, as Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in California discovered during the Covid-19 pandemic. Immersive methods like this also present another way to incorporate nature into health care.

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