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The future of healthcare and the benefits of biophilic design

Modern building interior with plants and chairs.

Healthcare environments are experienced in a variety of ways from short visits to the dentist or GP surgery, visits to the Accident & Emergency Unit, to prolonged stays at the hospital and end of life palliative care in hospices. The experience usually happens at a time when the individual is in need of care or restoration and the visit in itself can be stressful. For many of us the fear and anxiety associated with clinical settings can make treatment more difficult or create barriers to seeking help in the first place, both of which can exacerbate healthcare issues.

Research has shown that at these moments connecting with nature can be a way to alleviate stress and anxiety improving the user experience in healthcare environments. There is huge scope for using a variety of biophilic design principles to make these improvements, whether that is for the benefit of the patient (and their family or carer) visiting the healthcare facilities, or the healthcare professionals, for whom it is their daily environment.

Biophillic design principles can be introduced in varying degrees, from small scale inexpensive additions to the decor to larger structural interventions. Inclusion of and references to nature can be made in a variety of ways such as the choice of flooring and wall coverings, furniture and furnishings. It can be achieved through the use of natural materials like wood and natural fibres, or materials that emulate nature e.g. printed materials and surfaces on walls and floors that look like bark or leaf patterns.

Considerations of the layout of a room can take advantage of views out to nature and existing natural light in the space. This is something to aim for as increasing access to natural light will help to regulate the body’s circadian rhythms (which govern our mood and physiological changes over a 24 hour period), affecting processes such as hormone release of melationin and seratonin.

For further reading I would suggest taking a look at The Role of the Physical Environment in the Hospital of the 21st Century: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity. This report reviews a range of scientific studies on the impact of hospital design on users. They indicate that the way hospitals are currently designed can lead to the creation of unnecessarily stressful and dangerous environments. Outlined within the paper are a range of aspects to consider within hospital design to reduce stress and anxiety, whilst increasing the satisfaction levels of both patients and staff. Many of the areas identified within the research can be improved through biophilic design.

empty corridor in the modern hospital building.

Below are 7 key opportunities for biophilic design interventions to reduce patient and staff stress and fatigue, to improve health outcomes and increase effectiveness in delivering care:

1. Good ventilation to reduce the spread of infectious disease; fresh air passing over the skin also has stress reduction qualities.
2. Reduce general noise levels & noise peaks (through sound absorbing materials, single-bed rooms and reducing noise sources) – which has numerous benefits to staff and patients alike; to minimise staff distractions/interruptions and reduce errors in prescribing/dispensing medications whilst reducing staff stress (perception of work demands, improved communication therefore social support and care) and patient’s stress, blood pressure, heart and respiration rate, and to improve sleep.
3. Optimise lighting by using natural light to reduce patients length of stay, stress, pain, depression and need for medication and reducing staff’s exposure to high-intensity surgical lights which can cause retinal damage.
4. Provide views of nature to improve emotional well-being, reduce fear, anxiety, pain, stress and even levels of medication.
5. Create hospital gardens to provide views of nature, reduce stress and improve access to social support, satisfaction with quality of care and sanctuary from clinical environment.
6. Include artworks depicting nature to reduce stress.
7. Use nature and natural materials in the interior design to make the hospital environment more comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, informative, relieve stress and increase satisfaction by renovating the layout, colour scheme, furniture, floor covering, curtains and information displays and materials. This will improve patient perception and satisfaction with healthcare.

Biophilic Design principles have a key role to play in the design of healthcare spaces connecting patients, staff and visitors alike to nature; creating physical and physiological benefits to all.

I believe many of us who have experienced healthcare in one form or another, both personally or professionally, will recognise many of these design opportunities. Have you experienced a really good example of healthcare space design? Where there any Biophilic design principles in use? How did you or your friends, families or colleagues benefit?

Perhaps you have had an experience of poor design and have some ideas for how design could be used to improve that space? Let me know which Biophilic design interventions you think would be most effective?

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