Therapeutic Environments  

From the Therapeutic Environments Forum, AIA Academy of Architecture for Health
Ron Smith, AIA, ACHA, ACHE, EDAC, President/CEO, design at the intersection, LLC | Healthcare, Facilitator
Nicholas Watkins, Ph.D., Director of Research and Innovation, HOK | Healthcare, Contributor



Healthcare facilities are designed not only to support and facilitate state-of-the-art medicine and technology, patient safety, and quality patient care, but to also embrace the patient, family, and caregivers in a psycho-socially supportive therapeutic environment. The characteristics of the physical environment in which a patient receives care affects patient outcomes, patient satisfaction, patient safety, staff efficiency, staff satisfaction, and organizational outcomes. The effects can be positive or negative. No environment is neutral.

A healthcare environment is therapeutic when it does all of the following:

  • Supports clinical excellence in the treatment of the physical body
  • Supports the psycho-social and spiritual needs of the patient, family, and staff
  • Produces measurable positive effects on patients' clinical outcomes and staff effectiveness


A. Theory / Background

Therapeutic Environment theory stems from the fields of environmental psychology (the psycho-social effects of environment), psychoneuroimmunology (the effects of environment on the immune system), and neuroscience (how the brain perceives architecture). Patients in a healthcare facility are often fearful and uncertain about their health, their safety, and their isolation from normal social relationships. The large, complex environment of a typical hospital further contributes to the stressful situation. Stress can cause a person's immune system to be suppressed, and can dampen a person's emotional and spiritual resources, impeding recovery and healing.

Healthcare architects, interior designers, and researchers have identified four key factors which, if applied in the design of a healthcare environment, can measurably improve patient outcomes:

  • Reduce or eliminate environmental stressors
  • Provide positive distractions
  • Enable social support
  • Give a sense of control

Research on completed projects by organizations including the Center for Health Design, Texas A&M University's Center for Health Systems Design, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, and by a growing number of architectural firms and their clients shows measurable benefits to patient outcomes, safety, and quality of care, from such factors.

The application of these factors has been focused on the patient and patient's family. However, there are also recognized potential benefits for staff and caregivers in terms of satisfaction, effectiveness, and staff retention, from environmental factors such as:

The benefits staff receive from these environmental factors may impact the quality of care patients experience. (For more information on design of effective workplaces, see WBDG Productive Branch.)

In general, Therapeutic Environments have been proven to be cost-effective by improving patient outcomes, reducing length of stay, and by enhancing staff satisfaction, recruitment, and retention of staff.

Additional Information on Theory/Background

B. Practice

To create a therapeutic environment, all members of the design team—medical planner, architect, engineer, interior designer, site and landscape designer,—are responsible for using the power of design to find solutions that will affect the patients and staff in positive ways, throughout the facility; from the parking lot, approach, and entry, to the public spaces, clinical spaces, and ultimately the patient room. Following are some specific design criteria that are used or are being studied:

Reduce or Eliminate Environmental Stressors

For example:

  • Artwork and aesthetics can enhance the soothing and calming qualities of a space
  • Adequate space should be provided in public areas and waiting rooms to avoid crowding
  • Perceived waiting time can be mitigated by positive distractions
  • Visual and noise privacy
  • Odors that are objectionable or 'medical' can create stress
  • Wayfinding; the built environment should provide clear visual cues to orient patients and families, and guide them to their destination and return. Landscaping, building elements, daylight, color, texture, and pattern should all give cues, as well as artwork and signage
  • Reduce or eliminate sources of noise; other patients, public address systems, equipment 'clatter', loud conversations at nurse stations
  • Acoustical treatment of corridors adjacent to patient rooms; carpet tiles, rubber flooring
  • Acoustical separation of staff work areas from patient rooms; "even low noise levels (40-58 dB) combined with poor acoustics can reduce sleep quality and negatively affect other outcomes" (Roger Ulrich, Ph.D., Healing Environments Virtual Seminar, AIA, 2003)
  • Appropriate lighting systems; "lighting can be a stressor that alters mood, increases stress, disrupts daily rhythms, and modulates hormone production" (J. Roberts, Ph.D.)
  • Provide lighting that supports natural circadian rhythm; "Provide natural daylighting where possible, or bright white lights (400-600nm) in the daytime. Ensure absolute darkness in the evening; for nighttime movement only red lights (650-700nm) should be present in the rooms." (J. Roberts, Ph.D.)
  • Maintain good indoor air quality; 100% outside air where climatic conditions allow
  • Color, while subjective, can be a design factor in reducing environmental stress when understood and used in the context of the color preferences of a project-specific population.

Additional Information on Reducing Environmental Stressors

  • Patient Room Prototype , Clemson University Graduate Program Architecture + Health, 2012.
  • Ambulatory Facility Design and Patients' Perceptions of Healthcare Quality, Franklin Becker, Ph.D., B. Sweeney, K. Parsons. Health Environments Research and Design Journal, August 2008.
  • "Color in Healthcare Environments" The Center for Health Design (formerly CHER-Coalition for Health Environments Research)
  • Light and Immunomodulation by Joan E. Roberts, Ph.D. Department of Natural Sciences, Fordham University—impact of light on the immune system
  • Mental health and the built environment: More than bricks and mortar?, David Halpern. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis Ltd., 1995.
  • "Reducing noise pollution in the hospital setting by establishing a department of sound: a survey of recent research on the effects of noise and music in health care." Cabrera, IN; Lee, MH, Preventative Medicine, Volume 30, Number 4, April 2000 , pp. 339-345
  • When buildings don't work: The role of architecture in human health, Gary W. Evans and Janetta M.M. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 18, 85-94, 1998.

Provide Positive Distraction

For example:

  • Views of nature, from patient rooms, and wherever possible in lobby, waiting, and other 'high stress' areas
  • Access to nature, healing gardens
  • Chapel, meditation room, and meditation gardens
  • Artwork depicting nature, including back-lighted photographs of nature
  • Music; live piano in public area, recorded music in patient room when programmed specifically to create a healing environment
  • Mild physical exercise; corridors, public spaces, and gardens that invite walking when appropriate
  • Pets and other activities or elements that allow for a sense of stimulation that help nurture a patient's sense of positive well-being

Additional Information on Providing Positive Distraction

Enable Social Support

For example:

  • Family zone in patient room; with furniture for sleeping, phone and internet connection, reading light with separate control, and out of the way of staff
  • Provide places where patients can engage socially with family and other caregivers, such as the Planetree feature of a Family kitchen on inpatient units where family members can prepare food for patients and families to eat together
  • Provide accommodation for accompanying family member to be with patient throughout the examination and treatment process
  • Organize Family Focus Groups and Patient and Family Advisory Councils to be an active part of the design process, tuning in to the specific needs of the population and community to be served, as recommended by the Institute for Patient- and Family-Centered Care
  • Ensure culturally appropriate environments
  • Consider sociopetal versus sociofugal spaces: Sociopetal spaces facilitate social behaviors and the development of social groups (nonfixed seating, round tables, etc); see Sommer, R. below

Additional Information on Enabling Social Support

Give a Sense of Control

The ability of the patient to control the environment directly contributes to successful patient outcomes. A sense of control extends from privacy and lighting to choosing artwork being hung in the patient's bedroom during the hospitalization, to ordering meals from room service.

For example:

  • Private patient rooms result in better outcomes, according to recent studies commissioned by the Facilities Guidelines Institute and conducted for "CHER" (see PDF below)
  • Give the patient as much privacy and control over it, as is consistent with the need for nursing supervision
  • Give the patient control over the immediate environment; i.e., radio, TV, reading light, night light
  • Wayfinding; the built environment should provide clear visual cues to orient patients and families, and guide them to their destination and return. Landscaping, building elements, daylight, color, texture, and pattern should all give cues, as well as artwork and signage
  • Provide mini-medical library and computer terminals so patients can research their conditions and treatments—as in the Planetree model
  • Choice of lighting; patients and staff can benefit from personal dimming controls
  • Choice of artwork
  • Volume and programming control of televisions in waiting areas
  • Room service/menu selection
  • Storage area for patient belongings

Additional Information on Giving a Sense of Control

C. Tools

Every healthcare project should begin with a review of existing available literature on design interventions that have been proven to improve patient outcomes, staff effectiveness and patient safety, and a decision made with the users as to how each one might apply to the project, and what outcomes / benefits would be expected. Checklists can assist designers and users in evaluating existing conditions and in setting goals for new facilities planning and design. Design goals that are set and clearly defined at the beginning of a project can serve as research questions to be answered by Post-Occupancy Surveys, data collection, and evaluation.

Additional Information on Tools

  • The Picker Institute's checklist for patient-centered care is available as part of a design action kit, "Through the Patient's Eyes"
  • "Healing Environments" by Barbara J. Huelat, ASID. Medezyn, 2003.—The author shares several of her checklists for designing for the body, mind, and spirit.
  • Institute for Patient- and Family-Centered Care—resources for design planning
  • Create your own and share it...!

D. Operational Models

Aligning the healthcare organization's operational model with the design goals early in the process is a key to success in creating a collaborative, emotionally, spiritually, and socially supportive environment.

Additional Information on Operational Models

E. Research and Evidence

Research plays an important role in helping us continue to better understand the effects of the healthcare environment, and identifying opportunities to make it an active agent for healing. A growing body of evidence is emerging from research in several fields. Three kinds of research are being pursued:

Medical Model: evaluates environmental effect using biologically measurable data, for example:

  • Stress and Surgery Recovery "Psychological Influences on Surgical Recovery" by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D. American Psychologist, Nov. 1998. pp.1209-1218.
  • Joan E. Roberts, Ph.D., Fordham University, NY, research on "Light and Immunomodulation".  Her research focuses on the central impact of light on the immune system, which is susceptible to a variety of stresses.

Social Science Model: evaluates user perception and behavior

  • Press Ganey Associates "is the health care industry's top satisfaction measurement and improvement firm with 33% of all hospitals, and 44% of all hospitals of more than 100 beds, relying on our services."

Holistic Model: there is a movement toward research "that embraces an organization and its facility in its entirety. This research considers several design features at once, how they interact, and how their interactions impact several patient and staff outcomes" (N. Watkins), for example:

F. Market Forces and Future Influencers

Factors likely to influence the design of therapeutic environments in the foreseeable future:

  • "Evidence-Based Design": the increasing ability to base design goals and decisions on the measured results of outcomes from real projects
  • Sustainable Design movement as it applies increasingly to Healthcare facilities; e.g., Green Guide for Healthcare, USGBC LEED-HC
  • The journal HERD (Health Environments Research and Design)
  • The Institute of Medicine (IOM) and its emphasis on the improvement of quality and patient safety
  • CMS and its 'pay for performance' policy
  • The aging baby boomer generation will continue to have increased market influence toward greater quality and choice
  • Technology and the need for flexibility
  • The Center for Health Design "Pebble Projects": results of the early projects are being published; a growing number of projects (Pebble Partners) are currently underway and will produce further evidence in support of the design of therapeutic environments
  • The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture: multidisciplinary studies in the fields of neuroscience and architecture

Links to Additional Information on Market Forces and Future Influencers



Photo of the exteriour of the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula at night showing the unique landscaping or the lit rock garden, water feature and view

Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula
Photo courtesy of HOK

  • Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, healthcare in a natural setting with innovative daylighting, views of nature for patients and staff, water features, and healing gardens.

  • St. Charles Medical Center, Bend, Oregon. This site contains a good description of the key features that make up the healing environment of this award-winning 'total healing hospital'.

3 side-by-side images, on left is an interior view of the chapel in the St. Charles Medical Center, in the center is an interior seating area in front of a fireplace in the Woodwinds Health Campus, and on the right is a seating area at the bottom of a spiral staircase in the Griffin Hospital

St. Charles Medical Center, Bend, Oregon (left) — Woodwinds Health Campus, St. Paul, Minnesota (center) — Griffin Hospital, Derby, Connecticut (right)

  • Woodwinds Health Campus, St. Paul, Minnesota, where "healing is an art as well as a science".

  • Griffin Hospital, Derby, Connecticut. This is a facility which has experienced significant success and growth since it underwent major renovation and became a Planetree affiliate.

Photo from street of the exterior view of the Toronto General Hospital

Toronto General Hospital, Toronto, Ontario.

Interior of the Children's Hospital at Montefiore with stairs on the left, huge white columns through the center and a colorful wheelchair ramp along the right

Children's Hospital at Montefiore, Bronx, New York.

Relevant Codes and Standards

Additional Resources




  • Green Guide for Health Care™—A best practices guide for healthy and sustainable building design, construction, and operations for the healthcare industry.