At the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, an aquarium is implanted into a lobby wall. Freshwater fish flit through the 800-gallon tank, flashing their brilliant scales. They are oblivious to the pain, the sadness, the disease inherent in a facility such as this.
The patients, and friends and family thereof, however, are all too aware of it, and that's why the aquarium is joined by others in waiting rooms, by a cafeteria lined with glass tiles in shades of the sea, by balcony gardens and landscape paintings. In designing this building and another new one next door, M.D. Anderson has included features shown by scientific research to reduce stress, speed healing, even improve staff productivity. The backlit scenes of fall leaves and cherry blossoms in the radiation-therapy suites, the transparent pipes full of bubbles in a waiting room, the staff hallways and waiting rooms flooded with natural light: All of it is intended to conform the hospital's environment to its healing mission.
It's called evidence-based design, a new effort in healthcare to apply science to construction. For the first time, research about how patients and hospital staff respond to their environment is being synthesized into bricks and mortar. It's a recognition that how patients feel about their treatment can be as important to recovery as the treatment itself, and how their doctors and nurses feel about their workplace molds their on-the-job performance and productivity.
It's hardly rocket science, especially in a world accustomed to working by "best practices" and designing offices for productivity's sake. In healthcare, though, it's only recently that researchers have assembled data from hundreds of individual studies - patients who see trees outside their windows are released sooner than those who see a brick wall; patients in private rooms get fewer infections; patients in well-lit rooms use 22 percent less pain medication after surgery than those in dim ones; and so on - much less put it into practice. "Not enough people administering hospitals know about it; not enough design people know about it," explains Rosalyn Cama, president of the design firm Cama and chair of the board of the Center for Health Design, a nonprofit working to spread the new design gospel. "Corporate America has paid attention to these kinds of things for years, but in healthcare, noone has."
I talk to Rosalyn Cama on my cellphone in the hallway of an Austin hospital. My father is in a room about 20 steps away, and suddenly all this research about views and noise and lighting is no longer just theory on a black-and-white page. The first thing I did after my father got settled in was look out the window: There was a big tree with limbs like splayed fingers and a fringe of stubborn yellow leaves unwilling to admit it's February. But the lighting is dim, and announcements spurt from a speaker over my dad's shoulder. Luckily, they're almost drowned out by the sound of bubbling water, like an aquarium aerator, but it's from the device designed to drain his lung, not an intentional intervention of virtual nature.