We found ourselves in the hospital earlier this week for my husband’s broken ankle. It was not a lot of fun—not fun at all—but it did give me the opportunity to see the results of some nature-based research in action.
In the hospital room we used before and after the surgery, the wall that separated us from the hallway was actually a large glass door. And, in front of that to provide privacy, was a large curtain that covered the entire thing. The curtain was pale green and made of a slightly satiny fabric. I never would have noticed it, except that I immediately noticed that it had a large nature scene printed on it, covering an area at least 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide right in front of the hospital bed.
I thought this was clever on the part of the hospital, as views of nature—even in the form of photographs—have been shown to reduce patient stress and facilitate healing. Dr. Roger Ulrich was one of the first researchers to study this effect, and his studies in the late 1970s and early 1980s showed that photographs of nature reduced stress compared to those of urban environments. A foundational study in 1984 found that hospital patients with windows that looked out to natural settings had better recoveries than those without windows.
I’ve been aware of this research for a while, but it was interesting to see it—and experience it—in real life. Even though I didn’t really like the picture, even though I didn’t think the scene was that pretty as far as pretty pictures go, I could definitely see the benefit to having it there.
If it wasn’t there, the curtain probably would have been some hideous pattern that matched the couches in the waiting room. The hospital room would have felt impersonal, institutional. It still felt that way, but perhaps slightly less so.
And it was nice to have something to look at. We waited in that room for more than two hours before the surgery, which was boring. The photo captured my interest right away as something interesting too look at. It provided the “soft fascination” that is thought to make nature scenes so relaxing—there are many things that allowed my attention to wander across the scene without demanding my attention the way that electronics or busy streets do. He noticed the photograph too. We spent time trying to identify the trees and plants in the picture and talked about places of which it reminded us.
There was a large window in the room too. It was behind the hospital bed and looked out onto a parking lot, but it did provide a lot of natural light to the room. The nurse gave us permission to adjust the shades however we wanted, and at some point I stood up to stretch and opened them wide to check on the weather.
There are a million ways that hospital rooms could be even better, and it’s preferable to never be there at all, but it is nice to know that some people are designing the spaces to make them a little more humane.