Designing for Health: Thoughts on the Spiritual in Healthcare

Piedmont Newnan Hospital Newnan, Georgia. Photograph by A-Frame Incorporated

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to work on the design of a new tower for a historic Catholic hospital where the project included the transformation of an old patient wing or “hall” into workspaces.  The hall was a traditional linear, double-loaded corridor of patient rooms with beautiful terrazzo floors. At the end of the hallway was a solarium lined with operable windows that filled the space with light and air. As I stood in that space, I could imagine patients and staff feeling mentally restored by spending time in this “spiritual” space, bathed in natural light and ventilation. The image of that inspiring space has stayed with me.

As designers seeking to create efficient, highly functional, and patient-centric healthcare environments, making space for spiritual rejuvenation and restoration should be a priority for all of us. Our work as designers must seek to nurture the soul just as much as it seeks to heal the body.

CARTI Cancer Center. Little Rock, Arkansas. Photograph by Nick Merrick ©Hedrick Blessing

The concept is hardly new, of course. Designers have long found creative ways to enable beauty, reflection, and rejuvenation in highly functional spaces. Solariums, gardens, chapels, and public spaces, for example, provide light, places to sit and reflect, connections to the outdoors, and natural and human-made art. Spiritual spaces provide respite to the senses. Views connect patients and families to the outside, calming them with natural elements of earth and water. Natural ventilation bathes the occupants with healing air and breezes. And, the acoustics provide welcome silence in an often frenetic healthcare environment, providing space to think, breathe, and restore the spirt.  The Joint Commission, an independent, not-for-profit organization which accredits and certifies nearly 21,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States, requires access to religious and other spiritual services in Chapter R1.01.01.  Chapter PC.02.02.13 addresses the accommodation of spiritual needs during end of life care. Interpretation of this service as access to physical space as well as provided services is an interesting approach.

Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Charlestown, Massachusetts. Photograph ©Anton Grassl/Est

But in our current real estate climate, as floorplates become more efficient and healthcare providers seek to maximize the value of every square foot, designers need to up the creative ante when it comes to designing for spiritual recharging. For example, there may be opportunities to design dedicated spiritual space in special patient respite areas, which allow patients to get out of their rooms and “soak in” in nature, views, and light.

Additionally, as hospital environments become more technologically advanced, and healthcare campuses expand into the size of small communities, designers must look for new ways to reconnect patients with nature. Biophilic design is key to successful healing environments and positive patient outcomes. For example, a hospital building may offer patients comfort through both sun-sensored retractable louvers, as well as garden areas in which to connect with nature. Indeed, design elements that nourish the soul in a healing environment can come in many forms—both high-tech and natural—all while keeping infection control top of mind.

Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. Palo Alto, California Photograph ©Emily Hagopian

Faith-based hospitals have always provided chapels for patients and families where spiritual services are conducted and transmitted to patient rooms, and where people also have a place to go for solace and/or grieving. Today’s healthcare environments often include multi-faith, non-denominational places of quiet comfort and spiritual healing. These are high-value spaces that need careful consideration and attention by design teams, owners, and builders, and may include prayer rugs, labyrinths, and moveable furniture, while also allowing for customization for individual needs.

For secular healing environments, spaces that allow patients to touch grass with their bare feet, see butterflies in a garden, feel the breeze at their face, or hear the rustle of leaves while lying in a grassy area watching the clouds pass can be similarly therapeutic on a spiritual level.  At Fairview Hospital in Edina, MN for example, the meditation room contains a labyrinth for meditation, as well as a welcoming hearth and alternative seating to enable quiet reflection or connection. Family areas include a fireplace and different spaces for seating. Light, air, fire, and earth are represented. At Mayo clinic in Jacksonville, FL, a wood wall with slots hearkens back to the ancient ritual of placing written thoughts or prayers in the crevices, allowing patients, caregivers, and families to heal through the release of these thoughts and through a connection with nature.

Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. Palo Alto, California. Photograph ©Emily Hagopian

Spiritual space can be found in even the smallest of areas. At Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford in Palo Alto, California, the sanctuary space curves around a tight site to provide privacy, while providing views of the public garden and curated artwork. Patients, their families, and all caregivers can use this space in different ways. The garden experience is designed to be flexible, enabling connection to nature for patients with a wide range of mobilities.

Of course, staff also need spiritual spaces to reconnect, restore, and re-engage the spirit—separate from patients and their families. Special staff rooms filled with light, views, and amenities are becoming increasingly important. For example, at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, in addition to outdoor terraces for families and patients, designers created multiple staff overlooks, separated from the patient environment, for staff privacy and respite. Planters, artwork, and the beautiful Palo Alto air rejuvenate and relax staff during breaks.

Fairview Southdale Hospital Elsie O. Mitchell Meditation Sanctuary. Edina, Minnesota. Photograph courtesy Perkins+Will

At Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, healing spaces not only transform the mental and physical health of patients and staff, but the project also aids in restoring the environment and protecting the facility against climate change-related events and other stressors. Designed and built on a brownfield site, the facility provides views to the surrounding environment and programmed landscape, and a rooftop staff environment provides a welcome respite and restorative views to the harbor beyond.

Mayo Clinic Chapel and Meeting Room. Jacksonville, Florida. Design Architect: Perkins+Will. Photograph by Nick Merrick © Hedrich Blessing Photographers

The link between healing the body and healing the spirit is one to carefully consider: spiritual spaces that augment the care environment may provide an opportunity to improve patient outcomes, strengthen staff retention, and increase patient satisfaction. A growing number of facilities are recognizing the need and significance of these special spaces and are not only dedicating valuable real estate to them, but supporting inspired designs for these important places. The spaces could be relatively small in square footage but have a large impact by offering spiritual respite during stressful times.  Our challenge as designers is to be as creative and focused on this goal as we find opportunities for that inspiration.