Women influence decorating style

Facilities that look more like home attract patients

While patients want a sterile health care facility in terms of cleanliness, a sterile atmosphere is another thing. Responding to female patients' needs, many health care facilities are creating a more "people-friendly" environment. Instead of stark white walls, institutional furniture, and bare floors and walls, women's centers are incorporating softer colors, inviting artwork, natural foliage, and even waterfalls to positively impact both patients and staff.

"Women initiated this change in the environment, staring in the late '60s, with alternative birthing centers," says Jan Stichler, DNSc, MS, principal partner over the health care division of Stichler Design Group, an architectural, engineering, and interior design firm that specializes in women's centers. "Women patients wanted more control and choice in the birthing process, such as having a better environment for a baby to be born. They wanted the birthing center to look more like a home and be large enough to accommodate family members.

"Because obstetrics is one of the few specialties in which women can shop around for a preferred health care facility, hospitals began to realize the serious impact thaT an environment had on their ability to capture a special target market."

As a result, health care interior design changed, she says.

"The feeling was that if it was good for the birthing process, then it was good for other aspects of hospitals, as well," says Stichler. "Architectural and design firms began researching the psychology of the healing process and found that healing environments impact a patient's sense of well-being and affect recovery rates because a soothing, calming, positive environment can reduce blood pressure and stress."1-7 Since women are the primary decision makers for their families' health care purchases, hospitals that cater to women's needs and requests will, as a result, attract other family members, Stichler points out.

Another key to healing is the human element - the hospital staff, Stichler adds. These caretakers also need a pleasant environment in which to work, which a healing environment provides.

How do other factors, such as cleanliness, impact the sense of healing that a health facility conveys?

"Some environments are obviously unfit for carpets and plants, such as operating rooms," Stichler says. "But you can design operating rooms with windows at a high level to bring in natural light and so surgeons can see the outdoors, especially since they are usually in surgery for several hours. Hospitals also can paint murals on the walls and play soft music."

And what about cost?

"There are many things hospitals can do to create a healing environment without a lot of cost," says Stichler. "It's a matter of incorporating more of a healing setting into your interior design, such as the colors you choose."

Creating a healing place

Major components of a healing environment include a sense of natural light and airiness, botanicals, and color or artwork, says Stichler.

Stichler says natural light is critical to a healing atmosphere. "Although all patient rooms have windows, most interior spaces do not and should have them," she says.

Botanicals can include plants, trees, and gardens. Stichler says several hospitals have added "healing gardens" in which patients can sit on benches and listen to nature. Gardens have been created in atriums, courtyards, and rooftops.

A soft color palette without a lot of pattern promotes a relaxing atmosphere, she says. "Research has shown that the absence of color [i.e., white] actually causes stress, but too much color and pattern - especially in the intensive care area - overstimulates the brain and causes stress. Also, artwork with natural scenes is more soothing than abstract paintings."

In fostering a healing environment, appeal to the five senses, Stichler advises. Here are her suggestions:

· Smell: Put kitchens on patient floors, where employees bake chocolate chip cookies.

· Sound: Use fountains and other water features. Play music that has 60 beats per minute - the same rate as a heart beat.

· Sight: Use aquariums to separate waiting rooms into small, cozy waiting areas.

· Touch: Vary textures of carpets, slate, or wood floors. Offer robes and slippers instead of uncomfortable paper gowns.

· Taste: Have open kitchens where patients can store and prepare food beyond what the hospital serves. Offer food carts - or cafes on wheels - which patients can choose their lunch or have ice cream sundaes.

Designer hospitals

Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women in San Diego, has two atriums that divide the facility and provide six floors of natural light. Patients and guests can sit and relax in the garden areas. In the semi-private postpartum rooms, patients have a high degree of privacy since the beds are divided by a bathroom. And all decor, including furniture and color schemes, were selected by women in the community.

"When planning the hospital, which was built five years ago, instead of architects and hospital administrators deciding the ambiance of the facility, which is generally the case with hospitals, we met with community women's groups and got a sense of what they wanted," says Jack M. Schneider, MD, OB/GYN in maternal and fetal medicine and medical director of Sharp Mary Birch. The biggest thing for women is privacy, and that environment is reflected in our women's hospital."

Because St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, OR, is world-renowned for its endometriosis program, the center created an environment to give it "credibility" to women who come from across the globe.

St. Charles has carpeted hallways and patient rooms, skylights, fish tanks, gardens, fountains, and large windows with mountain views. In addition, the facility makes its patients feel comfortable by offering roving minstrels, a fishing pond, rotating art shows, a free recreational vehicle park for family members of out-of-town patients, free video libraries on each patient floor and VCRs in every room, a staff clown, a chapel, a rooftop garden with sculpture, plants, and water features, a computer-controlled "player" piano in the main lobby, a 24-hour room service menu, and massage programs.

For the Center for Women's Health, Lutheran Healthcare Network in Mesa, CA, its primary focus was on creating a calming atmosphere for breast cancer patients.

"In selecting a more patient-friendly environment, we took into consideration that women were mostly coming in for mammograms," says Mary Jo Petrie, RN, supervisor at the Center for Women's Health, Lutheran Healthcare Network. Those who walk through the door are afraid they have breast cancer, which is a very emotional and frightening disease for women.

"We didn't want a clinical setting, but one that would make them feel comfortable when they came in for a test they were not looking forward to. We accomplished this through our color scheme, furniture, artwork, and other decor."


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