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Cultivating better health: Benefits of hospital gardens and the great outdoors

August 16, 2018

Remember when your mother told you to “go outside and get some fresh air?” Maybe if you whined a bit she tried to convince you that fresh air would do your growing bones some good? Increasing research shows that this notion is more than just an old wives’ tale. Fresh air offers a variety of health benefits. Why? You may also remember from childhood that trees use photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide into the oxygen we breathe. This means that the air you breathe outside, near all of those photosynthesizing trees, is rich with energy-increasing oxygen. To help bring that energy to the ill and injured, hospitals are reconsidering how their patients can access fresh air during their stay.

Despite what most hospitals look like today, a hospital without windows next to every bed was unheard of until the mid-20th century. According to Smithsonian Magazine, for about 200 years hospital designers created blueprints based on the assumption that, in order to remain disease-free, hospital spaces must offer direct access to sunlight and fresh air. This rule stemmed from the centuries-old belief that disease could be spread by, or was perhaps even directly caused by, dark, stagnant spaces where smelly and stagnant “bad air” accumulated.

Eventually, hospitals evolved away from this mentality as increasing healthcare demands forced designers to focus on the operational efficiencies of the hospital building itself rather than on the salutary benefits of the environment. However, research within the past decade offers mounting evidence supporting patient access to fresh air, inspiring designers to add a new feature to the hospital setting: gardens.

Adding a rooftop or balcony garden to a hospital’s infrastructure presents a challenge, but certainly one worth undertaking. By creating a space where patients can interact with natural elements such as trees, flowers, and small water features, hospitals encourage patient independence while improving their mental health. Further, many physicians notice a significant difference in the health of hospitalized children who have the opportunity to spend time outside compare to those who don’t.

Some programs even allow patients to plant and nurture herbs or small vegetables to be harvested for the hospital cafeteria. This practice does wonders for the patient’s physical and cognitive abilities, while offering fresh, low-cost food to patients. Staff have also experienced benefits from personal use of hospital gardens; having a soothing place to take breaks and recharge between patients combats burnout and increases job satisfaction. This boost to patient and employee satisfaction is often reflected in engagement and experience scores and strengthens morale across the entire hospital.

Finally, in addition to improving the hospital environment, rooftop and balcony gardens also help the local environment. “Green” roofs, such as the ones installed in many rooftop gardens, use soil and drought-resistant plants to create natural insulation, reducing the heat load on the building. Fresh ideas like these benefit patients, staff, and the community — all while offering an undeniable and invaluable return on investment in our future.

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Further reading and sources:

https://news.aamc.org/patient-care/article/hospital-roof-gardens-soothe-patients-and-staff/