Walking and moving around in large hospitals can feel like being trapped. For patients and visitors, finding their way from point to point within a visually dull medical complex exacerbates an already stressed mental state. A landscape architecture researcher at West Virginia University has suggested a possible solution: let nature in.
Research conducted by Shan Jiang has shown that introducing nature into large hospitals can humanize the institutional environment and reduce the stress of patients, visitors and healthcare providers. Jiang’s findings were published in the Health Environments Research and Design Journal.
Jiang, an associate professor at Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, used immersive virtual environments — digitally created “worlds” that users are immersed in — for a controlled experiment in which participants were asked to complete various pathfinding tasks.
All participants saw the same hospital layout and room layout. However, in one group, participants encountered large windows and vistas of nature between the corridor walls. In contrast, the control group saw solid walls with no natural light or view of nature. Green space group participants needed less time and walked back less to complete wayfinding tasks.
“In terms of spatial orientation and wayfinding, window views of nature and small gardens can effectively break up the boring interiors of large hospital blocks,” Jiang said, “and serve as landmarks to help people orient themselves and enhance their spatial experience.”
The study also found that participants’ mood states, particularly anger and confusion, were “significantly relieved” in the green space group.
Based on previous research, it is estimated that a patient or hospital visitor must go through at least seven steps in the wayfinding process to arrive at the final destination. The Center for Health Design cites orientation issues as an environmental stressor and an issue of concern in health design.
Jiang said these factors, along with her own personal experiences (her family members worked in healthcare) and others’ anecdotes of feeling lost in hospitals, prompted the study.
“Large hospitals can be visually appealing, but the functionality and internal circulation are in fact complex and confusing,” she said.
The study also found that green spaces at key decision points, such as the main corridor or the intersection of departmental units, can serve as landmarks that positively attract attention, support wayfinding, and enhance the navigation experience.
With a background in landscape architecture, Jiang was less interested in people’s immediate surroundings, particularly the inside-outside relationship and the boundaries between architecture and landscape.
She found that gardens and plants have powerful therapeutic effects on people.
“One can explain such therapeutic effects from several perspectives: people’s color/color preferences tend to range from blue to green, nature and plants are positive distractions that might restore people’s attention-fatigue, and humans might, from an evolutionary perspective, have a genetic preference for Green have developed,” Jiang said. “All mechanisms together contribute to the positive experience of viewing gardens and nature views.”
Jiang pointed out that many hospitals across Europe have successfully integrated “hospital in a park” concepts. In the United States, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford in California has patios and corner windows in every patient room, and most rooms directly overlook a large healing garden, she said.
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