Do hospital buildings heal the sick?

Earlier this week, an article in Hospitals & Health Networks reported that new and renovated hospital structures can be designed to improve patient safety and efficiency. In fact, evidence-based design, such as private rooms, have been shown to improve patient health, reduce medical mistakes and eliminate staff injuries.

But can a hospital structure really improve patient safety? Can buildings heal? Or should the credit go to employees and care quality?

Take, for example, hand hygiene. Some hospitals increase hand-washing stations or hand sanitizer dispensers in their facilities to make it easier to improve patient safety. Although convenient, they alone won't cut infection rates down to zero.

Hand-washing compliance across hospitals are routinely dismal, Frank D. Byrne, M.D., President of St. Mary's Hospital in Madison, Wis., wrote in a Hospital Impact blog post last month.

Adding hundreds of hand sanitizer dispensers throughout a hospital won't make employees use them and therefore won't do much to reduce infection rates.

It takes hospital staff to produce such patient safety improvements. At St. Mary's, progress began once personal hand-washing goals were aligned with organizational goals. With employee commitment, compliance went from 76 percent to more than 90 percent for the past twelve months, Byrne noted.

Employees have a significant influence on a patient's medical care, and maybe more so than design elements like natural light or decentralized workstations--which still do their part to boost patient recovery.

There's countless research showing how important individuals within hospital buildings, not the buildings themselves, are to healing people.

For instance, hospital staff, through empathy and compassion, can greatly improve patient care. Consider the study from Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University Hospital that showed physicians with high empathy saw better patient outcomes. Or this JAMA article about how empathy affects care.

The emotional and physiological aspects of care still play a big role in the healing process, but getting employees committed to safety or teaching physicians empathy could help hospitals improve outcomes at a much smaller price tag than adding new building features like renovated patient wings. - Alicia (@FierceHealth)