Waiting to be Healed: Positive Distractions from the Hospital Bed


Interior design matters in hospitals because nowhere is the division between good and bad design more obvious than in the healthcare environment. I’ve taught healthcare design, and practiced healthcare design, but I’ve never actually been a patient in a hospital… that is, until last month. Over the course of four weeks I visited the ER three times, was admitted to the hospital overnight once, and even got to have a little outpatient surgery as a bonus for good behavior. Here are just a couple of insights on “positive distractions” from a designer-teacher-patient.

Good interior designers learn to plan positive distractions into the hospital environment so patients would be, well, distracted. Positively. This is absolutely necessary because 99.9% of a patient’s time in the hospital will be spent waiting. Waiting to see if your white blood cell count changes. Waiting to have a CT scan after drinking that horrible yellow stuff. Waiting for the nurse to come help you use the bathroom a little bit later after drinking that horrible yellow stuff. Yessir, that’s a lot of waiting.


In a space without positive distractions you will spend the first twenty minutes trying to connect to the hospital Wi-Fi and then play Fruit Ninja until the battery dies. That’s just the first two hours. What are you going to do for the other ten? You can try staring at that cheap print of a cabin by a river. It’s there because good designers know that nature aids the healing process and bad designers interpret that to mean “put up a small, cheap print of a cabin by a river.”

If you are lucky enough to get an in-room TV (only two of my five patient rooms had one) then you can also watch ten hours of back-to-back episodes of NCIS and develop a crush on Mark Harmon. This goes for dudes too.

Interior designers know that one of the most important aspects of healthcare design is safety. Materials specified for healthcare environments – like the floors, walls, privacy curtains, counters, and handrails – all contribute to the rate of healthcare-associated infections or HAIs.

Good design means fewer HAIs, so more people get healthy and stay healthy. Bad design… well, do you know what a staph infection is? No interior designer wants to look at one of those and say “I made that.” No sir.

We spend countless hours researching and testing products before they go into a typical patient room. You, too, can spend hours entertaining yourself with the positive distraction of studying the materials in your room. Try counting the ceiling tiles. If you have a standard two foot by two foot ceiling grid you can even calculate the size of the room. I imagine that normal people don't find this as entertaining as designers do. How sad for you.

I used to teach my students the importance of patient privacy. As an experienced patient, I need to amend my lesson plan: you have none. In the pre-op surgical wing the bays will be lined up precisely so that the gap in your privacy curtain allows you to make direct eye contact, awkwardly and often, with the guy down the hall. You can play that game where you look to see if he's looking, but then he catches you looking so you try to act like you weren't looking at him, but wait a few minutes and then check again to see if he's looking.

If you win the staring game they bring you an extra breakfast. [Photo L. Tan]

If you win the staring game they bring you an extra breakfast. [Photo L. Tan]

Positive distractions are a welcome release from the pain and worry that often accompany a trip to the hospital. If you're in a space that doesn't offer opportunities to be distracted (positively or otherwise) I recommend a tablet computer or smartphone loaded with games, movies, and music. Don't forget the charger.

Good interior design does more than offer positive distractions. Nowhere is the division between good and bad design more obvious than in the healthcare environment, where good design promotes faster diagnosis, treatment and healing; healthier more supportive work environments for hospital staff; and safer more soothing transitional spaces for patients and families. Bad design, at the least, wastes money on ugly cabin by a river prints and at its worst, simply put, can kill you.

Hours of waiting, tons of diagnostics, and one awkward hospital gown incident aside...

I'm alive today, in part, because good design helped good medical professionals to do what they do best: heal people.