Design and Health World Health Design

Lighting Design: Creating A Less Intimidating Hospital Experience

The cardiovascular room at the Catharina Hospital in Eindhoven - the first in the world designed using Ambient Experience

Light isn’t just for seeing what’s in front of us – it provokes an emotional response, too. Research from the Netherlands explores how lighting can reduce patient anxiety and increase staff wellbeing.

In the design of healthcare facilities, medical professionals and architects are increasingly realising the importance of creating a ‘healing environment’ that addresses the totality of patient and staff needs. This more holistic approach is driven by the recognition that a patient’s perception of the physical environment in a hospital can affect his or her sense of wellbeing and, potentially, health.

In an effort to create this environment in modern hospitals, considerable attention is paid to detail, colour, form, light and shade. Factors such as fresh air, light and peaceful surroundings are key design drivers. From a lighting design  point of view, two developments offer new possibilities for using lighting to address wellbeing in hospital areas: the advent of LED technology, and new advances in the understanding of the non-image-forming (NIF), or biological, effects of light.

In the past, lighting designs focused primarily on the visual aspects of light. The main purpose of lighting was to enable people to see. A large number of lighting parameters played an important role and requirements were application- and task-dependent. The visual aspects of light have a significant effect on our performance in a given environment. For example, light must be bright enough to facilitate performance of the visual tasks, but if the brightness is too high, it can cause glare. The colour-rendering of the light is also important, especially for the purpose of examining patients.

Light can increase visual performance, and with that, enhance work performance1,2. In the early 1980s, designers started to realise the importance of the emotional component of light, and this knowledge was applied in shops and offices as well as healthcare premises. Light affects how a person feels, and so artificial lighting has a role to play in improving healthcare by creating a relaxed or uplifting ambience.

Design focus overview: the biological, emotional and visual impact of light on human beings
The biological effects of light
Over the last two decades, it has become clear that light has a non-image-forming, or biological, effect as well. Light that reaches the retina is not solely processed by the cones and rods, but also by intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells. From these cells, signals are sent to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus, our main body clock.

From the SCN, information is sent to the pineal gland, where the information is used for the production of hormones and the regulation of body temperature. An increase in alertness due to higher colour temperatures or higher light levels is a typical example of these biological effects: the reduction of sleepiness helps, for example, to combat the ‘morning blues’ or the ‘after-lunch dip’. Lighting can also be used to suppress melatonin at night and cause a phase shift of the circadian rhythm, which is of particular interest to people working night-shifts. Consequently, light can support our wellbeing from a non-visual, biological, point of view3,4.

Lighting solutions, and lighting installations for healing environments in particular, should take into account all three aspects of light – visual, emotional and biological. The right balance depends on the function of the space and the activities that are performed.

This approach is reflected in human-centric lighting design solutions. A dynamic lighting solution for a patient room, for example, allows the colour and temperature levels to be changed according to the time of day. The lighting can be controlled (automatically or individually by staff and patients) according to their requirements at the time.

This solution utilises certain characteristics of natural light, thus putting patients and visitors at ease (emotional), helping healthcare professionals to perform in a more relaxed and effective way (visual), and increasing the quality of sleep for patients (biological). Special consideration is usually given to one of the lighting aspects: visual, emotional or biological, depending on the application (Figures 1 and 2).

Within a specific application, the focus of the lighting design solution may need to shift, if different tasks are being performed in the space. The biological and visual aspects are important in functional areas, such as offices. In examination and waiting rooms, the emotional aspects may play a more important role, thereby establishing the main focus of this research: how can we create less intimidating hospital ambiences with lighting?

Ambient Experience makes hospitals less intimidating
A sea colour theme in the scan room

Responses to coloured light

Thanks to the advent of LEDs, coloured light is easier to use today, and coloured lighting solutions – fl uorescent or LED – are increasingly popular. New, more sophisticated lighting control systems have made it easier to use dynamic coloured lighting. If designed well, coloured light can be used effectively to influence emotion, mood and wellbeing.

We experience colour on a conscious level, but also on a subconscious level, as categorised in Frank H Mahnke’s ‘colour experience’ pyramid, which describes the effects of coloured lighting on mood and wellbeing. These effects range from conscious, personal and temporary to more subconscious, biological and long-term.

If the application of colour is not based on aesthetic impressions, it is the influence of trends, styles and associations that form the basis for colour selection. Every colour has its own properties that can evoke emotions.

There are, for example, some universally valid colour associations. Warm colours such as red, orange and yellow are associated with sun and fi re. Red is seen as an activating colour. Cool colours such as blue and violet, are associated with air, sky and water, while green tends to be associated with nature. Blue is described as having a calming effect.

Our emotional response to colour is a response that is triggered immediately. A colour is perceived and the impression, association, response is formed. But colour has a long-term effect as well. It is a form of energy, a bandwidth of wavelengths. When it is experienced for a longer period of time – minutes, hours or days – this energy affects bodily functions, like brain activity and the production of hormones, just as it influences our mood and emotions5. It is assumed that pulse, heartbeat, blood pressure, EEG or galvanic skin response are physiological indices for the level of arousal – one of the biological responses to light. Literature indicates, with anecdotal evidence, that blood pressure rises and pulse quickens in red light. Red also makes body temperature rise, and people experience a feeling of warmth. It stimulates the nervous system.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that blue rooms have a calming effect on the senses, helping people to calm down, and boosting a person’s ability to concentrate. Previous research6,7,8 worked specifi cally with coloured light, and showed that light of a long wavelength generates a high level of arousal and light of a short wavelength induces a low level of arousal. In the experiments carried out by Swirnoff, in which highly saturated colours were used, the red room was perceived as aggressive and the dark blue room was found to calm the senses. Other research9 supports the claim that blue light can be used to induce physiological rest, but it does not support the idea that red light has a stimulating effect, and still further research10 failed to reproduce any of the effects of coloured light on physiological indices. In one experiment11, blood pressure increased with blue light and decreased under red light. A number of aspects could be the cause of this discrepancy12.

Prolonged exposure to colour
At present, the results with respect to the non-visual effects are inconclusive, and exposure to a light of a specific colour over a longer time period is not advised. The following aspect backs this up. In a US Marine correctional facility in Seattle, the walls of a lock-up for men who had been arrested (and were often aggressive) were painted a precise hue of pink. After the colour change, disturbances in the cell virtually ceased. Despite these powerful effects in the beginning, there is anecdotal evidence that these reactions are short term. Once the body returns to a state of equilibrium, a person may regress to an even more agitated state. The way an individual responds to a colour can change over time. Prolonged exposure will result in over-saturation and under-stimulation. The body will then attempt to rebalance, and the opposite effect will be achieved, in most cases with increased intensity5.

Coloured lighting used in the waiting room (left) and the patient room (right) has a positive impact on patients' sense of wellbeing

Using coloured light in scan rooms

Taking into consideration the ambiguity of biological responses to coloured light, the use of coloured light in scan rooms will focus on the emotional responses of the patients.

We split the use of (variable) coloured light in scan rooms into the three scenarios, all based on the symbolic content of colour:
• Coloured light to communicate signals: because in an MR room the staff and the patient are in different rooms for a large percentage of the procedure, coloured light signals can be used to communicate with the patient. For instance, a few seconds of red light might indicate to the patient to hold their breath, and green light could tell them to continue breathing again. This reduces communication barriers, especially for those who are emotionally distressed, hard of hearing and/or speak a foreign language.

• Coloured light to underline a specific theme: if the decor of the space is based on a specific theme (summer, winter, spring or autumn, underwater, sky) they can be enhanced by choosing the right light colours. For a summer theme, bright and warm light colours such as red, orange and yellow can be used. For a winter theme, cool colours such as blue, green and purple are better.

• Coloured light for emotional association: colour can evoke emotions, and thus create an emotional state of mind. Some colour associations that are universally valid can be identified: red and orange are generally assumed to suggest warmth and cosiness; blue is considered cooler and more cheerless; a wild mixture of colours suggests cheerful and festive; and purple is thought to evoke a sad, sombre atmosphere.

Other colours can trigger specific associations, so green might be associated with rest, and white with sterility. 
Office lighting is staff-centric, with an emphasis on the visual and biological aspects of light (Figure 1), while lighting in the scanner room is more patient-focused, with a greater need for emotional lighting (Figure 2)

Individual experience

Any of the affective responses to coloured light are to some extent determined by our own individual experiences. It is, therefore, hard to determine in general the emotional value that is attached to a particular colour of light. Colour association can, for instance, be affected by traumatic experiences or determined by factors like education, social class, family values or cultural differences5.

A colour will trigger an immediate reaction, but the required effect could change from the required emotional effect to an undefined biological effect. Furthermore, the absence of a changing stimulus over time will lead to under-stimulation or sensory deprivation.

An environment must, therefore, be neither too dull nor too stimulating. When colours are used, the levels of brightness, colour temperature, hue or saturation need to be varied. It is only with continuous variation and individual control of the lighting that the desired emotional effects can be achieved. In this case, biological responses are not addressed, sensory deprivation does not occur and personal preferences and responses can be taken into consideration. This forms the basis for strategies like AmbiScene and Ambient Experience.

AmbiScene is a lighting concept that enables the creation of spaces with dynamic lighting. Lighting can change in a number of ways – in colour, contrast, tones of white light, direction or intensity. Variation in these lighting elements makes it possible to create inspiring and meaningful experiences.

The scenarios used in AmbiScene focus on ‘emotional associations’ and ‘light to communicate signals’. Variable coloured light can be used to create an ambience that relaxes patients during the medical examination. It can also help doctors and nurses to communicate with the patient: the doctor can give signals using a specific colour, to help improve communication with patients who are emotionally distressed, hard of hearing or speak a foreign language.

Ambient Experience
Ambient Experience is an interactive, human-centred healthcare environment that combines design and technology to create a more comfortable experience for patients and staff, improve workfl ow and increase operational effectiveness.

Integrating architecture, design and enabling technologies (dynamic coloured lighting, sound, projection, RFID), Ambient Experience creates environments that the patient can personalise, embracing them within a relaxing ambience.

Certain types of lighting should carry more weight,
depending on the function of each area
Existing projects
Experience has shown that the best colours to use are the most relaxing and cheerful ones, such as blue, green, yellow and orange. It has also shown that pastel-coloured light (light blue, soft green, yellow, orange and violet) is appreciated more by adults, while saturated colours (blue, green, yellow and orange) are appreciated more by children. A number of projects have been completed, two of which are discussed below.

In 2006, the MR scanner room of the Marien Hospital in Hamburg was totally renovated. The lighting had to provide a comforting and less stressful atmosphere for patients during their medical examination.

Experience shows that medical procedures like MR examinations often frighten patients. Research indicates that up to 37% of patients may experience fear and anxiety, and 5-10% of patients cannot complete the examination due to claustrophobia.13

An AmbiScene lighting solution was installed. All luminaires and other lighting equipment are invisible, hidden behind the ceiling, so that only the effects of the lighting are experienced. Functional lighting is positioned in the ceiling, next to the examination table, to create optimum working conditions.

Orientation lighting is installed in the ceiling and between the entrance door and the scanner to create guidance. The functional and orientation lighting is only switched on before and after the scanning process. Incandescent lamps (300 lux, Ra=100) are used to ensure maximum quality of the light colour.

The ambient lighting illuminates three walls in different colours to create the dedicated ambiences. All electrical equipment is placed outside the room to ensure that it does not have an adverse effect on the scanner images and measurements. All lighting can be switched easily by means of a touch screen and is pre-programmed in accordance with the examination process.

Each patient can choose his or her favourite colours and these colours are then used throughout the entire examination. More than 100 patients were interviewed about this new concept. Most of them said they found the coloured light soothing. It also made children less afraid. According to patients, the narrow tunnel of the scanner seems less intimidating and the examination room looks more friendly. Colour can also be changed manually during the scan to communicate signals.

Experience in the Marien Hospital shows that this enables staff to explain procedures to patients who cannot speak German or who have hearing difficulties. It also shows that the number of failures in the MR room fell down to 0.5% with AmbiScene.

In another project, the first cardiovascular room in the world based on Ambient Experience was installed in the Catharina Hospital in Eindhoven. This was carried out under the responsibility of Philips Healthcare in cooperation with Philips Design, Philips Lighting and Philips Applied Technologies.

Functional lighting was installed above the treatment table in the centre of the room, behind special opal covers, to create a regular pattern on the panels. They can create lighting effects in different colour tones, from warm white light (3000K) to cool white light (5500K).

The dynamic coloured lighting supports four themes, that patients can select, allowing them to personalise the room and engaging them as a partner in the procedure.

Two components have been used for the coloured ambient lighting. First of all, a cove all around the perimeter of the room with fluorescent lamps (RGB) offers wall illumination in all colours of the rainbow, including white light. Secondly, fibre ends were fixed in panels mounted between the luminaires for functional lighting, and these illuminate the opal panels from behind as well.

Response from patients and staff has been positive. Staff say it is a pleasure to work in the scan room with Ambient Experience and they prefer this room to the other three interventional rooms in the hospital, which do not have the solution. The patients perceive the interventional room as bright, cheerful and relaxing.

Coloured light can be used to address the symbolic content of colour and to induce responses that are benefi cial to the emotional state of mind of patients and the workflow in scanner rooms. Variation of the light and the facility for individual control are required to ensure that biological responses are not addressed, that there is no sensory deprivation and that personal preferences and responses are accounted for. Completed projects show a reduction in the failure rate and feedback from staff and patients is positive.

Dynamic coloured light can be used to create less intimidating ambiences in interventional rooms, which has a positive effect on the attitude of the patient towards the interventional procedure and on working conditions for the staff.


Sjef Cornelissen has worked for Philips Lighting since 1976. He is currently a senior lighting application specialist, with a focus on light and wellbeing, at Philips’ Lighting Design and Application Center (LiDAC International) in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

Dr Martine Knoop is a visiting professor at Eindhoven University of Technology’s faculty of Architecture, and a senior application specialist at LiDAC International.


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