Thirteen and a half years ago when I started my profession as a self-employed holistic interior designer, I had no idea there was any science that proved a built environment could contribute to healing.
I simply kept experiencing powerful space and life transformations among clients who hired me to help them redesign their homes (and later holistic and integrative private healthcare practices) to be more nurturing, warm and cozy, and aesthetically pleasing.
Even when I painted the exteriors of the homes I owned, I was acutely aware of the neighbors who would suddenly take notice and start cleaning their own yards, beautifying their gardens and tidying up the pathways to their front doors.
In time, this elevated the energy of the neighborhoods, drawing more people to them and eventually raising the homes’ monetary value.
And even after working with hundreds of private practice healthcare practitioners who continuously reported patients and clients feeling more relaxed and enamored with the experience of their sessions (after the redesign of their spaces), I still didn’t know exactly how to scientifically prove that space contributed to healing.
That is until I finally did some serious research on the subject and came across several studies showing that space does contribute to healing.
You can imagine my delight.
The first study to scientifically support the ancient idea that space contributes to healing was a study published in 1984 in the journal Science by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich who showed that when hospital rooms have windows looking out on the natural world, patients heal more rapidly:
“Ulrich and his team reviewed the medical records of people recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall.”
That study led me to discover Dr. Esther Sternberg, a physician and Director of Research at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, who called Ulrich’s work “groundbreaking.” In her book, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being Dr. Sternberg shares:
“Wherever you are in the course of illness or healing, your physical surroundings can change the way you feel and, as a result, can change how quickly you heal.”
Her book is richly overflowing with studies and science about the brain and how it responds to built space, as well as how the immune system and the brain communicate, among other things.
It’s a fabulous read if you’re interested, and it has become my Bible of science supporting this idea.
I’m Not Alone
Private Practice Healthcare Physicians and Practitioners
With the growth of concierge healthcare practices and holistic and integrative private healthcare practices (about 35% of the US population use these forms of medical care, outside medical insurance), more visionary healthcare practitioners are integrating healing environments into their practices as part of their whole health medicine philosophy.
During the past decade, I’ve seen powerful shifts in healing when healthcare spaces are designed to nurture and comfort people in pain.
What I discovered was a common pattern among my clients—their patients were experiencing the same results of feeling less anxious and less fearful about procedures, more peaceful, focused and with more trust and compliance with recommended treatments.
After the healthcare spaces were redesigned and given color makeovers, 90% of my clients felt an improved confidence in their work and referrals doubled on average across the board.
More good news?
Some hospitals in our country are more than getting the hint.
For example, Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, New York introduced art and music as vital design elements in rooms and hallways. Here’s what they say:
“Beyond the positive effects of patients who are trying to heal — art — whether visual, musical or dramatic — can improve the hospital environment. It rejuvenates doctors and nurses and their stress-filled days. It makes it a friendlier place. It humanizes the environment.”
And there are other clinics and hospitals that are following suit.
For example, in 2011 The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) center for integrative medicine opened the doors of its new home at the UCSF Mount Zion campus. In addition to promoting a partnership with doctors, they offer holistic health treatments from around the world.
Progress in this area continues to move forward.
The History of Hospitals
I wondered ,”How did hospitals become a place of fear, even to the point that many of us will do anything NOT to go there?”
Prior to the mid 20th century, hospitals in Europe and in the U.S. were placed outside of cities in a natural setting–either along the cliffs of a water vista or in a forest setting–to encourage healing among its patients. Rooms were strategically placed so that natural sunlight flooded in and there was the belief that with this kind of care, patients would and did benefit.
As Dr. Sternberg shares in her book, “In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the notion that sunlight could heal was very much in vogue.”
She continues with:
“In 1860, Florence Nightingale wrote that darkened rooms were harmful and sunlit rooms healthful; large airy, bright rooms were the hallmark of what came to known as a “Florence Nightingale” hospital ward.
By the late 20th century, hospitals took the approach of designing their buildings to accommodate the emerging technology of that time. This moved away from designing with the intent of healing for the patient, and instead focused on the technology that could cure disease.
Neuroscience, architecture, and design is growing
There is a growing industry of architects and designers who specialize in people and place centered healthcare buildings, as shown in Healthcare Design Magazine. and the Samueli Institute: a non-profit organization dedicated to researching the science of healing. (I plan on inviting them onto my podcast later this year.)
Medical doctors, and integrative healthcare practitioners are increasingly seeing the importance of creating a space where their patients and clients feel well-taken care of, comfortable, and instantly put at ease.
When this happens, patients heal quicker and practitioners see a rapid growth in their businesses through word of mouth and returning clients who want more of the same.
“Why is this important?” you ask.
It’s simple. The more information we can gather to prove the benefits of healing and space, the more it will become integrated into our culture and accepted as a normal part of building any medical space, especially integrative healthcare practices that embrace complimentary alternative medicine.
The number of boutique healthcare practices in this country are growing dramatically and I’m thrilled.
I’ve seen more and more people (including me) who prefer the experience of working with an integrative boutique healthcare practice to treat pain and partner with practitioners for preventative care.
We also want the experience of feeling cared for from the moment we walk through the door.
When that happens, it’s a win win for everyone. Your patients love you, your work and your staff.
They also deeply appreciate your healing space.
And that’s good for your business.