Hospital Design Happier and Healthier Hospitals

Hospital corridor as a gallery walkway with Australian artist Bruce Earles' works on display.
Hospital corridor as a gallery walkway with Australian artist Bruce Earles' works on display. | © St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne Public Art Collection

Views of lush greenery and bright floral displays are not sights traditionally associated with clinical hospital settings. Neither are beautiful open atriums that showcase fine pieces of art. But compelling research now indicates that innovative hospital designs play a critical role in determining patient healthcare outcomes, such as the rate of recovery, stress levels and perception of pain. In a counter-revolution to conventional and clinical hospital design, architects are designing hospitals with artistic principles and the patient psyche in mind.

Nature is inherently beneficial to the human psyche. The mere sight of greenery helps to improve mood, quicken recovery rates from illness, assist with pain management, alleviate mental fatigue and decrease stress levels. In 1985, an early landmark study by the environmental psychologist, Dr Roger Ulrich, revealed that surgery patients recovered faster and used fewer strong pain medications when their room window faced a view of nature rather than a brick wall.

Greener is Better

With such research in mind, naturalistic principles are increasingly being incorporated into the architectural design of modern hospitals. At the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, wooden ceilings that resemble tree canopies have been used to create a soothing, natural interior.

Healing gardens, Lady Cilento Children's Hospital. Healing gardens, Lady Cilento Children's Hospital. | © Christopher Frederick Jones In addition, the creation of healing gardens within the hospital grounds enable patients and visitors to escape the stresses of illness and recovery. Analysis of ‘bench diaries’ (visitor books) scattered around the gardens reveal the valuable therapeutic benefits garnered by stepping into this natural space. One patient recorded that “this garden has saved our sanity. It is a beautiful quiet place”, and another noted: “just finding this space has made the world of difference when I want to yell or scream at the world”. Not only can doctors and treatments help to heal patients – now green landscapes can too. As reported in the Scientific American, Clare Cooper Marcus, an emeritus professor in landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, stated, “spending time interacting with nature in a well-designed garden won’t cure your cancer or heal a badly burned leg. But there is good evidence it can reduce your levels of pain and stress – and, by doing that, boost your immune system in ways that allow your own body and other treatments to help you heal.”

Hospitals as mini-museums

As well as incorporating gardens into medical settings, artworks can transform a clinical and sterile hospital into a calming space of healing. A growing body of research suggests that artworks featuring natural landscapes are the most suitable for healing purposes. One Italian study entitled “Beyond traditional treatment… establishing art as therapy” found that patients in oncology units across Italy had a more positive perception of a hospital environment when exposed to artworks as opposed to a blank, sterile wall. In order of preference, patients preferred art of natural landscapes, followed by animals, scenes of everyday life, portraits, urban landscapes, and abstract works.
On board with this new approach to healthcare design is St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. Over 1300 works are on public display across its 18 hospital sites. In 2009, a Rehabilitation Unit patient and his partner commented that “the art allows you to identify the area of the hospital you are in, it localises you to a place. The art brings a new dimension to your experience in the hospital. You can speak about the art with your friends and family and do not have to dwell on your illness. When you are recuperating to have something to think about other than your illness, something to relate to and appreciate I think, can assist in healing.” Nowadays, art isn’t simply designed for aesthetic purposes – it is an essential feature within a comprehensive model of healthcare.

Healing gardens, Lady Cilento Children's Hospital. Healing gardens, Lady Cilento Children's Hospital. | © Christopher Frederick Jones And hospital art isn’t just beneficial to patients and visitors. Healthcare facilities operate as contemporary art spaces, allowing artists to exhibit their works and reach a wider audience, all the while promoting health, healing and wellbeing through their artistic pursuits. The Artist in Residence Program at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne offers artists a free studio for a yearlong residency in exchange for donating some of their artworks to the St Vincent’s Art Collection. The program overcomes the difficulty in accessing fine art, whilst supporting emerging artistic talent in Australia.

Incorporating Animal Therapy

It is often said that a dog is a man’s best friend; animals provide a source of comfort and companionship during times of distress. A 2015 study reported in the Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology found that patients with head and neck cancers who received visits from therapy dogs experienced positive increases in their emotional well-being and quality of life. Interaction with animals in a hospital setting can even boost our levels of oxytocin, the anti-stress hormone known to increase levels of happiness and trust. As such, healthcare facilities are incorporating pet therapy and animal interventions into a comprehensive patient treatment plan. At the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, a meerkat mob located in a special open-air enclosure in the Specialist Clinics Reception entertain patients and visitors, providing a great distraction and learning experience for children. By brightening the lives of seriously ill patients, exposure to animals helps to create a happier environment and a less distressing treatment experience.

Designed to Heal

Clearly, the scientific evidence to date seems to support the notion that stimulating, artistic and natural spaces are a key component in improving patient outcomes. Hospitals are evolving into something much more than sterile, clinical settings – as the renowned architect Gene Klow from Los-Angeles architecture firm RMJM HKA states, “the trend now is creating healing environments which are emotionally supportive as well as functionally supportive”. A soothing Monet watercolour, an uplifting mural, or a wall of lush greenery is much more likely to enhance recovery than a bland, blank, unimaginative space.