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The effects of lighting in healthcare settings

Lighting is a fundamental part of any space, but it’s particularly important in medical facilities because of the enormous impact it can have on patient outcomes, healing and overall health.

“When designing for a healthcare setting, it’s imperative that we light the space properly, using the most up-to-date information,” said Deb Zawodny, a healthcare market development manager for Eaton’s lighting solutions and a 30-year veteran of the lighting industry. “Lighting has a profound effect on people’s lives, and we can’t rely on guesswork.”

When lighting is the difference between life and death

In an emergency department or operating room, every second counts, and even the little details can be the difference between life and death. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals need more than just training and skill—they need optimal conditions to provide the best possible care.

Lighting is an important piece of the puzzle.

“The features we integrate into clinical lighting for healthcare facilities aren’t required for traditional applications, such as offices and classrooms,” said Zawodny. “Does the room contain advanced imaging equipment, like CT or MRI? Is it an operating room or an exam room? Will pediatric patients or patients with Alzheimer’s disease stay in this room? These are all important questions to consider when designing the lighting scheme.

“Sometimes, a mistake won’t become apparent until a patient has had a medical issue or something goes wrong during a procedure or scan,” she said. “People can even die as a result of incorrect lighting. That’s why it’s critical to ask the right questions and understand what you’re dealing with.”

Operating rooms are also an important area of concern. These spaces have a variety of electronics, including surgical and monitoring equipment, that won’t always be compatible with standard lighting. Issues with frequency interference are not uncommon, and this may require additional filtering or adaptations of fixtures to make them suitable for the space. While it’s sometimes possible to adapt existing lighting for the environment, it’s much easier to design it for the space on the front end.

Security systems that protect infants in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) are another example. Some systems operate in a frequency range similar or identical to certain lighting components. This can cause the alarms to sound frequently or – worse – not at all in the event of an actual abduction. Experts like Zawodny work with hospitals to ensure these problems don’t occur.

The science of lighting and its effect on the human body

Lighting is an important consideration for medical professionals caring for patients, but it can also affect patients’ ability to heal. Studies on the body’s circadian rhythm, its relationship to overall health and how it is influenced by light have informed healthcare lighting design as well as lighting for non-hospital settings.

Scientists understand now that the human body operates on an actual clock and that it’s important to ensure the clock is working well. During the day, we need access to good lighting, whether artificial or natural. This helps us stay alert and function at a high level. As we begin cycling into the evening and move toward sleep, lighting should simulate the “color” and lowered intensity of “night.” This helps us reach deep sleep, which is when our bodies make chemicals we need to live, such as those that regulate our heart rhythms. Others such as cortisol (which can affect our weight) or serotonin (related to our moods) can also be affected.

“We want to mimic what would happen if we were all cavemen and relied on the natural cycle of the sun to regulate our bodies,” said Zawodny. “Too much artificial light at the wrong time or poorly designed lighting can disrupt that rhythm and lead to health problems. This is important for everyone, but for hospital patients who are trying to heal, it’s an especially big deal.”

Tightly regulated circadian rhythms are even more crucial for select patient populations, such as those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have shown that supporting a patient’s day/night cycle could reduce night wandering by as much as 50 percent. In a Danish study, similar actions slowed the advance of the disease in dementia patients.

“They weren’t cured, but their quality of life was greatly improved,” said Zawodny.

How LED technology is changing the game

LED technology is creating a ripple effect throughout the lighting industry, and healthcare applications are a natural fit.

“Everyone wants to save energy, and LEDs offer other benefits such as generating less heat while operating, making it easier to control room temperatures,” said Zawodny. “Additionally, in the medical field, space is at a premium. Many LED sources are smaller than fluorescent and halogen alternatives, so they’re great for medical applications. The smaller we can make things, the better.”

In healthcare, experts like Zawodny help ensure lighting works with complex medical equipment in the space. They also take into consideration variables such as the possibility that beds will move or some patients will have special needs.

“LEDs are an extremely flexible light source,” she said. “Five to six years ago, the technology was scrambling to catch up, and LEDs weren’t quite ready for many applications. The technology is advancing so rapidly that they’re now the clear choice in many instances, and many feel they will eventually replace all other light sources.”

Healthcare lighting: where we’re going

A decade ago, the healthcare industry was in the middle of a construction boom. But when the economy crashed, the pace of new hospital construction slowed considerably. Now, hospital administrators are taking a more creative approach to facilities management as they prioritize renovating and repurposing existing buildings. One positive result is a more thoughtful approach to lighting design.

“We’re doing all sorts of innovative things for our healthcare clients,” said Zawodny. “Sometimes we’re incorporating lighting fixtures that look nothing like a traditional healthcare product; they’re functional and architectural. At other times we’re adding clinical features to very economical products to meet budget constraints while not compromising the quality of the lighting or patient care.”

These new products offer a wide variety of price points and functions – and what’s more, they’re highly efficient and equipped with advanced lighting controls.

“Controls are a fundamental part of lighting healthcare spaces,” Zawodny said. “They give our customers flexibility, but they also support the healing process. And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.”