Depressing clinics make healing difficult

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Sick Building Syndrome: How cold and uncomfortable architecture cannot make people in hospitals healthy

Hardly any patient feels comfortable in the hospital. Long corridors with acrid smells of disinfectants and bright light slow down the patient's recovery at least. Some believe that clinics are so bald, sterile and uncomfortable that illnesses continue to manifest and sometimes even heal worse. Only recently have psychologists criticized this effect, which experts call “sick building syndrome”. A researcher at the University of Koblenz has now developed a scheme that can be used to assess the architecture of clinics and their facilities. According to a scientist, around 60 percent of German hospitals would have to be redesigned so that the recovery of the sick is no longer slowed down.

Unwell atmosphere in clinics
It is not an unknown but hardly researched phenomenon: in clinic buildings, many people feel uncomfortable and sicker than they actually are. The behavior of most people adapts to the environment. Many subjectively experience greater pain or discomfort, the eyes start to itch and water in some people, and the mucous membranes are often irritated by the harsh cleaning agents. Psychologists and doctors also complain: the atmosphere of many clinics leaves much to be desired. While naturopaths and therapists in particular rely on a cozy and relaxing atmosphere in their practice, conventional medicine in clinics is sterile and cold. In the first place are prescription of medication and treatment plans. The emotional state is often neglected.

Architectural psychologists examine the influences of buildings
Architectural psychologists have now set out to improve the situation. Dr. phil. Rotraut Walden belongs to a small group of over 20 German researchers who are active in this special field of psychology. They primarily investigate the effects of buildings and the resulting behavior of people. "There is a significant connection between the architecture of a building and human health," the psychologist told Welt Online. In this context, Walden refers to the so-called building-related illness. Patients increasingly suffer from infections, allergies or worsening of their existing asthma. As soon as those affected leave the room or the building complex, their state of health improves after a short time.

The lecturer at the University of Koblenz has been studying and investigating the nature of clinics for around 15 years. In addition, she also deals with the conditions of offices and kindergartens. In the course of her research, the scientist has developed a schematic system for evaluating hospitals according to 4 criteria. The focus is on the architectural functionalities, the aesthetics and the social and ecological compatibility. The outdoor green areas, the patient rooms, corridors and treatment rooms are important in the scheme.

At first glance, the psychologist's requirements seem too high. For example, according to Walden, the reception area should resemble a hotel reception. "The hospital should also see itself as a guest house and not as a terminal building". Small changes would suffice. Walden doesn't want to be misunderstood. It is not about luxury, but about "creating an atmosphere of welcome" in clinics.

Helping to shape the environment improves recovery and recovery
According to the expert, people need the opportunity to help shape their environment for emotional well-being. However, patients often feel helpless in the everyday life of the clinics. Many feel like "subordinates" and supplicants. For the process of recovery, these are not good preconditions to get well quickly. Walden also addresses the aspect of economy, which could be a factor that should not be underestimated. Because the faster patients recover, the lower the costs for the already strained health system. Especially since the redesigns should not be too important financially. Because even a few small things could quickly remedy the situation. Even putting up flowers and colorful pictures or operating temperature controls and light sources independently can have a positive effect on the atmosphere. White walls, on the other hand, appear cold and repellent. Mediterranean colors on the walls are better, says the researcher. After all, changes could optimize work processes, improve the motivation and willingness of the clinic staff and accelerate the recovery of patients.

Intensive care units can also be redesigned
No hospital ward should be left out. Whether children's clinic, surgery or intensive care unit, every department can be embellished. If rooms like the intensive care unit are equipped with countless medical devices, “you can decorate the ceiling”. This could even reduce the prescription and the duration of medication use.

In addition to the improvement measures within the clinic, Walden says, the ideal conditions of the property should be taken into account when planning and building a new clinic. It is imperative that external noise pollution be avoided. On the other hand, traffic routes such as motorways and train stations should be easily accessible. In the clinic itself, signs must be made that are understandable to everyone so that patients can find their way quickly even in an emergency.

So far, only a few hospitals have been redesigning their premises. Some progress has recently been seen in the birthing departments and delivery rooms. Here, for example, the Hannover Medical School (MHH) has taken a first step in the right direction. Last year the birth department was completely redesigned and mother-child made more friendly. Until a rethink has found everything, "patients should bring personal things from home," advises social worker Gritli Bertram. These can be pictures of the children, flowers, soft toys or cuddly pillows. In this way, at least the area around the patient bed can be upgraded atmospherically. (sb)

Also read:
AOK: Clear treatment differences in clinics
Assessment portal for hospitals launched
Doctor Navigator: Doctors rate online

A scientific reading tip on the topic: Increasing productivity through office design. In F. Dieckmann, A. Flade, R. Schuemer, G. Ströhlein & R. Walden (1998). Psychology and built environment. Concepts, methods, application examples (Pp. 272-281). Darmstadt: Institute for Housing and the Environment.

Photo credit: Gerd Altmann /

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