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Lighting to promote healing in hospitals

Experts have long known that lighting has a profound effect on health. Our natural body clocks, housed deep in the hypothalamus of the brain, represent a light-sensitive cadence dependent on natural cycles of light and darkness to keep us well and help us heal.

This has even greater relevance in a hospital setting, where patients often spend days or even weeks – or longer – while their bodies fight to overcome an illness or injury.

“Patients need darkness at night to stimulate the production of melatonin, which promotes healing,” said Rebecca Hadley, manager of Eaton’s SOURCE lighting education center. “Conversely, research shows that daytime exposure to light of a particular intensity and color temperature might promote better health.”

What barriers exist in the hospital setting?

Hospitals – places dedicated to healing – are rarely peaceful. Patients staying on a unit must usually contend with bright hallways, beeping machines, blinking lights on monitors and providers coming in and out to check vital signs and administer medication, often in the middle of the night. All of these forces inhibit the body’s production of melatonin, which hurts sleep, mood and the ability to heal.

On the flip side, a flood of melatonin can affect a night nurse’s ability to care for patients on the unit. That’s why it is important to have lighting specifically designed for nurse stations and other areas separate from patient rooms.

“Working with inadequate lighting, night nurses can potentially become sleepy and make dosing mistakes or errors,” said Hadley. “Hospitals should consider incorporating blue light at nurse stations and other areas where caregivers work with medications and patient charts.”

Hadley added it’s important to establish boundaries, however. “Blue light does not work well for patient rooms in the evening, when we want patients’ bodies to begin preparing for rest,” she said. “Red or amber lighting is best in these areas, and there should be just enough light to allow caregivers to do their jobs.”

These considerations are crucial for patients at any age, but especially newborns.

“Proper lighting is of the upmost importance in neonatal intensive care units,” said Hadley.

How can hospitals use lighting to advance patients’ health and well-being?

Ideally, most patients will be exposed to bright light during the day and complete darkness at night. But if nighttime lighting is needed for way-finding and around-the-clock care, hospitals should choose lights that are amber, red, yellow or orange. Lights that are blue or white in color trick the brain into believing it is daytime, activating physical waking processes and halting the production of melatonin.

Conversely, patients should be exposed to natural light during the day, either via windows or by going outdoors. If this is not possible, hospitals should consider artificial lighting that mimics natural light.

What are the benefits of advancements in lighting?

Wireless controls are making it easier to fine-tune lighting to the needs of individual patients.

“If you’re able to give patients control of the lighting in their rooms, patients won’t have to call nurses for assistance with it,” said Hadley. “This will improve the patient experience but also save the hospital money by streamlining operations.”

Technological advancements in lighting can also help make the hospital a happier, more fulfilling place. “Now, a children’s hospital can give kids an iPad that allows them to control the colors of the light in squares on the walls,” said Hadley. “It makes the hospital a little more fun and a little less scary, promoting the healing process. You could never do that with traditional finishes.”

What is the adoption rate?

Hadley hasn’t seen optimal conditions achieved by many hospitals – yet. With the growth of advanced controls and innovations in LED technology, that’s beginning to change.

“With new construction above a certain price, hospitals will begin to demand this level of control and quality,” she said. “People today are tech-savvy, and they’re accustomed to being able to control many things from their phones or iPads.”

Luckily, great lighting and advanced controls are becoming more accessible every day. Not only are high-tech options becoming easier to install, but modern LEDs respond favorably compared to the HIDs and fluorescents that have dominated the market for years. Many LEDs are ready to dim out of the box, while HIDs may require the addition of a ballast to achieve that functionality. The flexibility of LEDs and the spectrum of available colors make them a smart choice for hospitals moving forward.

“Incorporating the proper light into hospital settings is critical to human health,” Hadley said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”