New Hospital Promotes Healing Through High-Tech and the Best of Nature

When healthcare executives at Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, Calif., sat down to plan a new hospital building their aim was to provide the best possible experience to patients -- and their family members -- who would rather be anywhere else.

The result is a new medical center in Anaheim that not only utilizes the latest in medical technology but devotes attention to the more touchy-feely aspects of medicine.

Two decades of research have helped cement the idea that people heal faster when they are in a comfortable environment. The industrial-looking, loud and harsh hospital environments of the previous century have given way to hospitals designed with wood and glass, soft colors and lots of greenery.

"We're trying to provide an experience that promotes healing," Margie Harrier, chief operating officer of Kaiser Permanente Orange County, told Take Part. "Hospitals in the past have been very white, very sterile, not putting very much emphasis on how the environment promotes healing."

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The new Kaiser Permanente hospital in Anaheim, part of the mammoth Kaiser HMO that has been long entrenched as a leader in California healthcare, opened in September to replace an aging facility built in 1979. The new building has 262 beds, 36 emergency department bays, 10 operating rooms, 10 labor and delivery rooms, 20 neonatal intensive care beds and a helicopter pad for transporting trauma patients.

But the facts and figures don't tell the whole story of the center's innovations. The building was designed to support personalized care, one of the biggest buzz phrases in medicine. Patients who come in for a particular treatment, for example, may be encouraged to have preventive care services, too.

"If it's time for them to have their mammogram, we prompt them to have that done while they are on site so they don't have to make a return visit. We try to do all their care in a bundle," Harrier says.

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Moreover, an electronic medical records system means healthcare professionals can share information and spare the patient from repeating their medical history to every doctor or therapist they see. Medical records can be accessed at terminals next to each bed and at nursing stations.

There are plenty of high-tech tools for both patients and healthcare professionals to access. Patients can order meals at their bedside using a touch screen, and can communicate with their doctors via email. Video walls in the lobby allow patients and visitors to access health programs and games that entertain and educate.

In the acute medical care areas, professionals make the best use of electronic devices. In the Brain Lab, iPads allow doctors to communicate with an off-site neurologist on the immediate care of a patient with stroke symptoms, even sending brain images to the neurologist.

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"It can give the neurologist a way to visualize the symptoms and provide a course of treatment," Harrier says.  That way, the patient's treatment isn't delayed while the neurologist drives to the hospital.

The softer aspects of the campus are designed to enhance the health of everyone, she adds, from patients to visitors to hospital staff to neighbors in the community. Many medical centers over the past two decades have added gardens and atriums to hospital grounds so patients can have a taste of nature while they recuperate. But at the Anaheim facility, a three-acre Healing Garden serves as the centerpiece of the campus, complete with walking paths, water features and a "serenity area" for quiet time.

Indoors, natural lighting is used wherever possible, she says, to help patients and visitors stay oriented to the day and night. Maintaining a normal circadian rhythm has been shown in numerous studies to promote healing and prevent disease. Windows have been placed in areas that are typically windowless in most hospitals, such as emergency and recovery rooms.

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"We tried to put natural light sources close to patients," Harrier says. "We want to make sure privacy is protected, but bring in the natural lighting source so that patients can remain oriented to day and night. In the recovery room, it optimizes a patient's ability to become awake much sooner than if they were in a darker environment."

Other new medical centers around the country are also trying to blend technological innovations with a gentle philosophy of healing. For example:

The Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, which opened this summer, features what planners call "healing design elements" for children and teens. Hospital planners set up a Kids' Advisory Board in planning the hospital and ended up with some truly childlike touches such as a CT scanner that looks like a yellow submarine and an indoor garden with real trees and benches. Patient rooms are spacious and have more privacy to allow family members to remain with the children in a comfortable setting. The new Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Las Vegas includes a tele-health unit to allow outlying clinics to have rapid two-way communication with hospital personnel. A digital media system and computerized patient records permit medical information to be called up by hospital personnel at waiting-room stations and in classrooms. The operating rooms are equipped with hybrid CT scanners that allow surgeons to see organs, tissues and blood vessels in real time. The University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro in New Jersey includes specially designed units that enhance the care and comfort of geriatric patients, including six stations in the emergency room and 24 beds dedicated to an acute care unit for the elderly. Among the hospital's other innovations are decentralized nursing stations that keep nurses closer to their patients, a rapid medical evaluation unit and a "results-waiting" space in the emergency room to improve upon what is typically a frustrating wait for patients and family. The center also has nourishment stations throughout the hospital to enable families to remain closer to patient rooms.

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Healthcare reform means modern medical centers need to be streamlined, efficient and effective at improving, Harrier says. Costs need to be held down, but hospital executives and doctors still need to show they are providing evidence-based medicine. Hospitals have set goals to cut hospital-acquired infections, reduce medical and prescribing errors and improve patient outcomes. 

"Healthcare reform is challenging us to thinking differently as far as how to best provide care to the patient, and how does patient want to receive that care," she says. "It's going to challenge us but hopefully help us remain curious about how we can best provide services."

Do you think the changes hospitals are making to their facilities will improve patient care and the patient's experience? Let us know in the comments.

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Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.