If ideas about better-built hospitals are going to bear fruit over the next several decades, they have to get into those new buildings. The window of opportunity is open.

My brother calls to talk about Dad's status. I tell him they moved Dad from the room with the view of that lone tree to one overlooking an atrium. The view from his bed: a brick wall. If you stand close to the window and look down, you see the top of a statue of the Virgin Mary, her open palms from this angle appearing more like a gesture of uncertainty - a shrug - than comfort or invitation. The flowers are wilting. It's dark. My brother recalls his own experience in an ICU, where the only window was over the head of his bed. "You get to feeling cut off from reality," he tells me. "You get a little crazy."

That you're cut off from the outside world, and, more specifically, from the outdoors, is a common thread in environmental healing research. If patients can look at nature, even if it's just a landscape painting, their stress is vastly reduced. That's why much of the decor inside M.D. Anderson's Ambulatory Clinical Building imitates nature. Even the massive sculpture in the lobby is a tree - rendered in the vision of a contemporary artist, but a tree nevertheless. Water falls down a grooved granite wall, the lightbulbs mimic sunlight, and through the doorway into the cafeteria, you can see a ceiling of puffy "clouds" suspended from a flat blue "sky."

A patient here for radiation treatment would walk between the waterfall and the cafeteria sea, take an elevator down, walk through a waiting room with an aquarium that contains a real coral reef, and then into a room that might seem dominated by huge, scary machinery were it not for the sprawling nature scenes on the wall and above the treatment area. "When you're being treated for cancer, it can be unpleasant," says Dr. Thomas Burke, M.D. Anderson's senior vice president and interim chief operating officer. "We hope to distract people from that." Apparently it works: The backlit art has a direct physical effect, explains Janet Sisolak, who spearheaded the construction project. When patients view it during treatment, "[their] heart rate goes down, so stress decreases."

The oversize waiting areas are also designed to reduce stress, whether through the ubiquitous aquariums and huge windows or through the presence of family. Recliners, tables sized for jigsaw puzzles and games, laptop desks with Internet connections and wireless access - they're all there to encourage loved ones to come and stay. And it's not just for comfort and convenience: Research shows that patients with familial and social support are healthier overall than patients without; for heart patients in particular, family support means quicker recovery. At M.D. Anderson, "we count on an average five-to-one ratio of family members to patients," Sisolak says. "They're really part of the caregiving team."

Conveniently, the rest of the caregiving team benefits from many of the same things that help the patients: brighter, more-­natural light; less noise; better-organized, more-spacious rooms. Here, the buildings were designed with areas for patients on one side, areas for treatment in the middle, and areas for employees on the other side, so that everyone gets plenty of natural light. The balcony gardens are for patients and staff to enjoy. Doctors' offices are close to treatment areas for easy access, but far enough away that they won't be cannibalized for treatment space in the future. "We paid as much attention to the staff as to the patient," says Sisolak. "How the staff feels has a direct impact on how the patients feel."