How Much Should Be Spent Beautifying Hospitals?

Where the evidence exists to support it, design has the potential to increase safety, promote healing, and even end up saving money.

Advanced Health Sciences Pavilion 2615.jpg
Rendering of the Advanced Health Sciences Pavillion, opening this summer at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

No matter how close a health care center comes to resembling a spa, or how well a hospital room imitates a hotel suite, its primary job is to heal, not pamper. With the scarcity of health care dollars already preventing people from receiving access to basic care, it's easy to look on hospitals' pouring of money into design as unconscionable excess. 

But while indulgence surely occurs for indulgence's sake, numerous studies have established that the environment -- its colors, sounds, and other design characteristics aside from its cleanliness -- may have a direct influence on health and healing. Elements like artificial light and unwanted sounds have been linked to physical effects similar to those caused by stress, such as raised blood pressure, along with symptoms of depression. Natural light has been shown to have mood-elevating and pain-easing qualities; the presence of trees and nature appear to impact human health in subtle but measurable ways as well. Easing anxiety and creating a positive atmosphere for healing, it is argued, can lead to tangible outcomes.

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"A revolution in the science of design is already under way," according an article in last week's New York Times' Sunday Review. This is certainly the case in health care: the emerging field of "evidence-based design" aims to introduce elements of construction and atmosphere proven to promote healing. 

The tactic is purely logical from a basic science perspective. Rugs, for instance, may be a bad choice for a space simply because carpeting houses more bacteria than bare floors. 

But a poorly chosen pattern for a rug can have negative effects, too. In the Times articleLance Hosey notes that people are motivated by the color green, drawn to "golden rectangles," and experience stress relief when faced with the "irregular, self-similar geometry" that often appears in nature. We could add that they do not, as a controlled experiment confirmed last year, respond well to static, repeating patterns. The authors had participants look at a black and white rug with such an aesthetic; after five minutes, "even neurologically normal individuals" were left with physical symptoms of motion sickness. 


That's more than enough evidence that this specific rug would not be the best carpeting choice for, say, a patient waiting room. Just as designers of Vegas casinos seek out disorienting floor patterns to keep patrons' eyes on the slot machines, designers of hospitals and other health centers at the very least try to intuit choices that will lead to calming and relaxing effects.

But there is also a movement underway to draw upon cognitive and emotional processes, using a holistic approach to promote healing and recovery through the elements of a space. "It should come as no surprise that good design, often in very subtle ways, can have such dramatic effects," Hosey continues. "If every designer understood more about the mathematics of attraction, the mechanics of affection, all design -- from houses to cellphones to offices and cars -- could both look good and be good for you." 

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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