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Interior Design’s Widening Impact on Healthcare Outcomes

By Michael J. Berens via Multibriefs

One of the biggest successes in interior design in recent years has been the recognition that the design of healthcare interiors can have a significant impact on patient experience and, consequently, health outcomes. For more than two decades, research and case studies have documented various ways in which patient-centered improvements to the interior environment can make positive contributions to patients’ physiological and psychological health.

Over time, the list has grown as investigators, building on previous research, have explored patients’ responses in a variety of healthcare settings more deeply.

As far back as the early 1980s, Roger Ulrich and his team of researchers demonstrated that patients whose hospital rooms had views to nature healed faster and required less pain medication than did those who had only a view to a wall. Subsequent studies of additional environmental factors such as lighting, noise, space configuration, and visual design showed how they could detrimentally affect patients and proposed design solutions to counter those effects.

In 2000, Ulrich published a paper calling for evidence-based environmental design of healthcare facilities in order to improve medical outcomes, in which he stated, “The key factor motivating awareness of facility design has been mounting scientific evidence that environmental characteristics influence patient health outcomes. Many studies have shown that well-designed environments can, for instance, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and lessen pain. Conversely, research has linked poor design – or psychosocially unsupportive surroundings – to negative effects such as higher occurrence of delirium, elevated depression, greater need for pain drugs, and in certain situations longer hospital stays.”

His review of the research included studies on noise, music, window views, daylighting, single vs. multibed units, flooring material, and furniture arrangement.

Since then, the practice of evidence-based research design has exploded and with it support for more research. A recent review and analysis of the current body of structured scientific evidence on the healing built environment and its impact on patients’ health outcomes identifies light, sound, temperature, air quality, visual design and display, safety factors, space flexibility, control, and links to nature among other environmental factors that have been shown to effect patient outcomes.

These factors have been linked to physical outcomes, such as health indicators, control of pain and spread of infection, and mortality; psychological outcomes, such as stress, depression and disorientation; and patient experience outcomes, such as satisfaction with their care, sleep quality, and length of stay.

Earlier this year, the Center for Health Design released a white paper on evidence-based design for the provision of healthcare in the home. The authors note, “There is limited research available on the role of the built environment in safe and effective delivery of healthcare in the home, for both patients and providers.”

Nonetheless, they did find studies that addressed patient’s physical needs, including building and room layout, patient-handling equipment, furniture, accessory fixtures, storage, medical waste storage, flooring, lighting, technology, and home aesthetics. They also relate how some of these same factors can address psychosocial needs as well.

Further research is bound to uncover yet more ways that interior design choices and solutions can contribute to better healthcare outcomes and experiences for patients. Neuroscience research on how human-constructed environments affect occupants is still in its early stages.

For example, Hessam Ghamari, an interior design professor at California State University, Northridge is using neuro-imaging technologies to better understand the mind’s wayfinding process in order to better assist people with navigating through unfamiliar spaces. In particular, he is interested identifying design elements that can help people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease with finding their way and thereby increasing their personal freedom and health.

Moreover, Ghamari is passing his commitment to research-based design on to his students so that the next generation of designers can accomplish even more through employing design to improve occupant well-being.

Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher and writer with more than 30 years of experience in association communication and management.


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