How Does Healthcare Architecture Affect Quality of Life?

Many healthcare patients today spend lots of their time in hospital buildings. Which isn't great for quality of life, but are there steps we can take architecturally to improve their situation? In the wise words of Winston Churchill, "We shape our buildings and afterward our buildings shape us." The fact is that a patient’s comfort, mood, and quality of life can fluctuate dramatically depending on the atmosphere of the facility they occupy. While it can be easy to discount or even ignore completely the effect that architecture has on our day-to-day lives, we shouldn't. Nearly every moment of every day is influenced by architecture. So if we want to have happier patients and staff, it seems reasonable that we pay a bit more attention to the design of our healthcare facilities.

The Research

Thanks to many modern psychological studies, we have a much greater scientific understanding of the sorts of medical environments people prefer. Some of these studies have attempted to measure subjects’ physiological responses with wearable devices that monitor skin conductance (a marker of physiological stimulation), smartphone apps that prompt subjects to answer questions about their emotional state throughout the day, and electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets that measure brain activity relating to mood, stress, and state of mind. Because of these studies, we now know for certain that all buildings (including hospitals) do in fact affect our mood and well-being. It's also been brought to light that specialized cells in the hippocampal region of our brains are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit!

Let's Get Practical

The science is in. Hospital design affects people’s psychology. So how should architecture improve in light of that? The answer is actually pretty intuitive. We all know the dreadful feeling of spending too much time in a dark, dull environment. It dampens your mood and leaves you feeling cold. It's also clear that the layout and size of a space has a considerable effect both physically and psychologically on your ability to undertake a given task. In contrast, we've all experienced beautiful, inspirational spaces. Admiring and appreciating them with joy. Apply these intuitive principles to healthcare spaces and it's no wonder why hospitals which lack aesthetically pleasing designs, have poor natural lighting and small, claustrophobic rooms tend to have a strong negative effect on behavior and the morale of both patients and staff. In these types of architectural designs, people feel too confined and crowded which decreases quality of life after a period of time. Designing for function alone isn't enough in the real world. We need more.

Designing Happier Lives

First and foremost, buildings and urban spaces should be designed around the people who are intended to use them. The relationship between humans and their environment contains aspects of social and psychological influences along with a physical impact. You can't consider the relationship between people and space as a one-way street. But when setting out to create better hospitals, you find that creating the “perfect” space is an impossible, subjective balancing act between form and function. This is made harder by the fact that architects don't have the luxury of creating prototypes outside of computers or physical models, and are restricted by laws and often tight budgets. But by considering the effect that each design decision will likely have on patients and staff, and making an effort to improve those decisions, we can greatly improve the quality of life for all those who'll use the space.

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