It was a completely unexpected outcome. Researchers expected that patients would be more content. They thought they might sleep better. But nobody expected that redesigning a hospital room would cause people to ask for less pain medication.
The story was in the New York Times last week (In Redesigned Room, Hospital Patients May Feel Better Already – NYTimes.com). University Medical Center of Princeton NJ needed a new hospital, and decided to try to design a new hospital room from the ground up. After extensive interviews with patients, nursing staff and many others, the new room was created, tested and eventually incorporated in the new building. People love it, staff love it: All the rooms are single patient, have large windows looking out, a couch for visitors, even (why didn’t they think of this a century ago???) a continuous handrail from bed to toilet.
The unsurprising surprise was that people in these new rooms get better faster:
But the real eye-opener was this: Patients also asked for 30 percent less pain medication. Reduced pain has a cascade effect, hastening recovery and rehabilitation, leading to shorter stays and diminishing not just costs but also the chances for accidents and infections.
There are probably many reasons for this result. One is certainly the window.
This will not surprise anyone who has read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. Louv’s thesis, backed up by extensive research that he cites throughout, is that we human beings are hard-wired to live in the natural world. We are happier and healthier when we’re outside in God’s creation, but even when we can’t be outside in creation, we are better if we can just see it.
That’s not a surprise, is it? I took some effort in my own book, When Heaven and Nature Sing, to show that our uniqueness as human beings comes in part from our special hybrid nature. We are created by God to live in two worlds at the same time. We’re spirit creatures (“a little lower than the heavenly beings”, Psalm 8:5) who live in the physical world.
We are not spirit beings who inhabit bodies. Nor are we bodies that have attained self-awareness as an extension of our brain’s organic cognitive functions. We are a spiritual/physical unity, ‘incarnate creatures’ (Tolkien’s term) or perhaps better, ‘embodied selves’. [When Heaven and Nature Sing (Kindle Locations 1109-1111)]
Hence the “apple a day” proverb of our title. Our ancestors knew what we are fast forgetting. Simple things from the world of nature – an apple a day – lead inevitably to health, to happiness, to rest.
The other important feature in the hospital room might well be the couch. An accommodation for visitors and family members, with the expectation that they might even want to spend the night. What a revolutionary idea.
I wonder if that fact that we need to invent things like couches in hospital rooms is simply an indication of how far we’ve moved from where we ought to be. Wendell Berry has an entire essay on the topic of health that is worth your time to click over and read. Here’s a taste of how he ties God, love, community and health into one impossible-to-untangle package:
I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world. summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.
I believe that health is wholeness. For many years I have returned again and again to the work of the English agriculturist Sir Albert Howard, who said, in The Soil and Health, that “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man [is] one great subject.”
…I believe that the community-in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures-is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms. [Berry, Health is Membership, 1994]
The significance of all of this should be obvious. One of the reasons we have an “environmental crisis” is because we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we’re not like the other creatures. That somehow, with our great intellects and amazing creative abilities we can transcend our creatureliness. That we don’t need apples and that we can heal ourselves with machines and with chemicals.
We don’t have feet of clay – we have feet of flesh and bone. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to be out in God’s world. We need the joys and the frustrations of family and friends and community. And when we’re sick we need that more than ever!
That’s why people who can be in a carefully designed hospital room and look out at God’s sky, God’s trees and God’s birds, holding the hand of someone they love need 30% less pain medication.
Now if we could get those patients to spend time outside in creation before their hospital visit, maybe we would have 30% less people going to the hospital in the first place.
That might be worth a try!
So next time you find yourself headed for the hospital, just say, “I’ll take a room with a window, please.”