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Patient Care: The Healing Power of Your Environment

Your surroundings can have a positive impact on your health. Using this power can help speed healing, with steps as simple as bringing flowers and cheery colors into a room. 

By Deborah Quilter

Traditionally, people bring flowers to sick people. But this type of patient care may do more than just cheer them up. According to a study in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, the physical environment has important implications for the disease process. “It makes sense to view health care as a comprehensive approach to combat all factors contributing to the disease process. The integration of all therapies—peaceful and comforting surroundings, stress reducers, caring health care providers, together with evidence-based medicine—creates a healing environment,” writes the study’s author, Jone Geimer-Flanders, D.O. of the Hawaii Heart Brain Center, Division of Cardiology, at the North Hawaii Community Hospital in Kamuela, Hawaii.

The effect of a patient’s environment and aesthetic surroundings and the spiritual component of healing cannot be ignored, wrote Dr. Geimer-Flanders. This healing environment can even include everything from the art on the wall to healing-oriented design and architecture.

Dr. Geimer-Flanders promotes “blended medicine,” which mixes the use of complementary and alternative medicine together with traditional medicine. Blended medicine has been found to promote stress reduction, faster healing, decreased infection rates and staff and patient satisfaction and lower hospital operating costs. “It has been argued that high-tech treatment [like subspecialty care and advanced imaging] accounts for 20 percent of healing while ‘high-touch’ treatment [complementary and alternative medicine therapies] and a healing environment account for the remaining 80 percent (and that most treatment centers leave out this 80 percent),” Dr. Geimer-Flanders pointed out.

In another study about people who were recovering from gall bladder surgery, one group of patients had windows that looked onto trees. A second group looked on to a brick wall.

The patients with the beautiful view of nature healed nearly a whole day faster than those with the brick wall. They also required less pain medication.

“As a physical therapist, I encourage healing by paying attention to the environment,” said Dustienne Miller, MSPT, of H&D Physical Therapy in Manhattan. Miller works with a lot of people who have had chronic pain, and she helps her patients understand the connection between stress and their symptoms. During treatments, Miller plays relaxing music and uses soft, diffuse lighting instead of harsh fluorescent overhead fixtures. “People have remarked at how soothing it is to have music and non-fluorescent lighting,” she said. And, while people may have a lot of stressors in their lives, they do have some control over their environment and can use that power to help themselves heal at home.

From Sick Room to Sanctuary

How can you transform a sick room into a healing sanctuary for better patient care? First, take an objective look at the room. What would you see if you were lying in the patient’s bed or sitting in the chair? Are you looking at a pile of old newspapers or a vase of fresh blooms? Is there inspiring artwork on display, or reminders of chores undone? Does the air smell fresh or are there strong perfumes or chemical smells? Systematically notice the factors listed below. Each element can help–or hinder–the healing process.
Here are some ideas to consider:

     
  • Flower Power. Keep fresh flowers or green, living plants around. If the patient has a view of nature, all the better! Growing plants remind us of our own power to renew ourselves.
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  • Aroma. Is there a musty, stale or unpleasant odor in the room? Air it out if so; burning scented candles or oils can help, too. Just be sure they aren’t overpowering and don’t leave them unattended.
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  • Color. Painting rooms in soothing colors can have a calming effect. Cheery colors can energize.
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  • Sound. Reduce unnecessary noise or a install white noise machine to temper what you can’t change.
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  • Playing inspiring music can uplift the spirit. Like color, music can lull or enliven, depending on what’s needed.
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  • Lighting. Lowering the lights can instantly effect stress reduction. Use non-fluorescent bulbs if possible. Pink light bulbs are especially nice, because they make you look good.
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  • Art and beauty. According to Dr. Geimer-Flanders, “Research from the Center for Health Design has shown that the more attractive the environment, the higher the perceived quality of care and the lower the anxiety of patients.” You can install pleasing paintings, posters and statues. You can also include inspirational quotes.
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  • Pets. The presence (and unconditional love) of a beloved cat or dog can be very comforting to a sick person. They can also be a welcome distraction from pain.
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  • TLC. Tender loving care can’t be bought for any amount of money, but works better than any drug in terms of psychological health.
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  • Good Vibes. Staying positive and upbeat around sick people brings out the best in both of you. Many people who work in the healing arts realize that they are affected by their environment as much as their clients are, so making these changes enables them to feel relaxed, and give more relaxing treatments as a result. Says Miller, “Having a serene environment makes me a better practitioner, and my patients have a better experience.”

One more thought: If these things help sick people, imagine what effect they have one someone who’s well! Take a look at your own living space and see what you can improve.