Sunlight and Nature: Positive Medication in Healthcare Spaces

It is almost impossible to discuss biophilic design in healthcare without mentioning this 1981 seminal study on recovery times during post operative care after gall bladder surgery by professor Roger Ulrich of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. This fascinating study investigates whether a view out to nature from their room had any effect on patients’ recovery from surgery. Between 1972 and 1981 a cross-section of 46 patients were observed whilst recovering from cholecystectomy (Gall Bladder Surgery).

The Ulrich 1981 Study

The patients were all assigned to similar rooms with a window. However, one group had a view out to some deciduous trees, whilst the other group’s window offered a view of a brick wall. Comparisons were made between pairs of patients with similar traits (gender, age, weight etc) one of the pair had the tree view whilst the other the wall view.

Different aspects of their recovery were measured, and the results speak for themselves:

  • Patients with the tree view spent fewer days in hospital – an average of 7.96 days in hospital compared with 8.70 days for those with the wall view.
  • The ‘tree view’ patients took fewer moderate and strong analgesics per day.
  • The nurses notes on patients’ conditions and recovery had less negatives evaluations eg ‘upset and crying’, than positive evaluations (eg ‘in good spirits’) for those patients with tree views -an average of 1.13/patient compared with 3.96/patient with wall views.
  • Those with a tree view also had slightly less minor post-surgical complications.

All of this information was extracted from the patients records by a nurse who wasn’t told what the patient could see through their window.

2005 Sunlight and Health Study

A similar study in 2005 (Walch et al,.) looked at the significance of sunlight levels in hospital recovery spaces and its impact on patient well being. Again the figures demonstrate significant improvements in those exposed to greater levels of sunlight:

  • Patients felt less pain
  • 22% less analgesic medications were taken per hour
  • 21% less pain medication costs were achieved

These reports conclude that although findings cannot prove definitively that all views of nature and sunlight levels speed up recovery, they do indicate that the design of hospitals can have an impact on patients’ recovery time, highlighting why biophilic principles should be considered within the design of healthcare spaces to incorporate natural elements.
Let’s consider the bigger picture for a moment.

The difference in individual patients’ recovery time when multiplied by the number of healthcare users over a year adds up to a huge amount of time and resources and this has implications regarding the financial savings that improved design could have on hospital budgets, let alone individual wellbeing satisfaction with their care. This is of particular relevance currently whilst the NHS budget is under scrutiny and healthcare provision is a hot topic in the UK.

Have you, or anyone you know, experienced a really well designed healthcare facility? Or have you noticed the effect of visual access to plants, natural materials or other living elements on wellbeing?

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