The surprising way that architecture and the art of healing intersect


Cold, sterile and well … clinical. Three words that neatly describe hospitals as many of us know them. In books, on TV and in movies, we see and experience hospitals as impersonal, solemn and sterile institutions — designed only to treat disease.

Interestingly enough, while our society has begun shifting away from thinking of health as just the treatment of disease, our hospitals fail to reflect these changes. This is particularly true when considering their architecture.

The concept that architecture and design impact healing isn’t new. A study published in Science over 30 years ago showed that a simple view of nature, while hospitalized, could improve recovery after surgery. This research has since been substantiated by numerous studies working with several patient populations like children and residents at long-term care facilities.

While the aforementioned studies often focus on gardens, this general concept can be taken a step farther. Consider Bridgepoint Hospital in Toronto, Canada. After years of renovation this former jail and now rehabilitation center challenges the paradigm of the hospital being a building isolated from the world.

Every patient at this 464-bed facility gets their own window. The building is open to the public, and includes rooftop terraces, communal dining spaces and floor-to-ceiling windows. All of this is designed to create an environment of healing.

Who’s to say that this kind of environment doesn’t impact more than just the patients? It is possible that an open and attractive workplace can promote the emotional wellbeing of frontline staff and, in return, affect patient outcomes.

While some may argue that because the average patient stay at Bridgepoint is 90 days, the physical environment is paramount. But, consider the stark contrast between the average children’s and adult hospital near you.

According to a 2014 statistical brief by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the average length of stay for pediatric patients (aged 0-17) and adults (18-44) was 3.9 and 3.6 days respectively. (The adult population in this study excludes the elderly who are likely hospitalized for longer periods of time.)

Despite the comparable lengths of stay the experience of walking through the halls of pediatric hospital is often marked with sights of popular cartoon characters, centers of play and communal activities, and bright open spaces. On the other hand, most adult hospitals are built in universally severe and sterile styles.

So, if both demographics spend a similar amount of time in the hospital, why not create a physical environment just as pleasing for both groups? Who’s to say adult patients wouldn’t benefit from even simple things, like a room with a view?

The point here is that the architecture of hospitals clearly have the potential to drastically impact the patient’s experience and healing process. There should never be a compromise of functionality or patient safety. Instead, incorporating or even considering how the physical environment can promote healing is key.

For more information, TED talk that takes a global perspective on architecture and healing.

Betty Yibrehu is a medical student.

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