Loneliness is as hazardous to one's health as smoking a pack a day, new research suggests.
Oddly enough, people in the hospital are at particular risk of becoming lonely. Doctors, nurses and support staff may poke and prod them at all hours of the day or night. But they tend to lack meaningful interactions with family and friends, especially as the days in the hospital mount.
That could have dire consequences for their recovery. All the good work their clinicians are doing to heal them could be undermined by loneliness.
Fortunately, healthcare providers can "treat" loneliness — by making smart design choices that keep loved ones by patients' sides.
Social health has a significant impact on physical health. An analysis of multiple studies conducted by Yale University researchers found that social interaction helps patients recovering from coronary artery disease or bypass surgery. The more a patient felt supported by his social network, the more quickly he recovered.
A separate study published by the Journal of the American College of Surgeons found that patients with smaller social networks were more likely than their peers with larger networks to stay in the hospital for longer than a week.
One four-year study of 1,000 hip-replacement recipients found that the most socially isolated patients had a risk of pain after surgery that was almost three times higher than their counterparts.
In other words, a healthy social life in the hospital speeds healing.
There's a lot hospitals can do to keep their patients' social health up. For starters, they can make it easier for friends and family to stick around. Too many hospitals lack places for family members to sleep, share a meal with their loved one, charge their phones or even hang up their coats.
Hospitals don't have to transform themselves into the Ritz. But simple things like natural light, potted plants, artwork on the walls, and free WiFi can go a long way toward getting friends and family to extend their visit.
Reconfigurable patient rooms can make it easier for visitors to stay with their loved ones. Thirty years ago, a new dad might've had to nap in a folding chair while he waited to give his wife a break from their newborn baby. Today, he may be able to sleep right beside his family on a sofa that converts into a bed at the flip of a switch.
Movable walls that replace the curtains of yesteryear could allow one patient to enjoy a visit with family while her roommate sleeps in silence.
Hospitals increasingly understand that effectively ministering to patients requires addressing the needs of their families.
For example, University Medical Center of Princeton recently revamped its patient rooms by making them all private, installing large windows for natural light, and expanding space for visitors with pullout couches.
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Memorial Sloan Kettering's surgery center in New York has movable sofas that let large families all sit together. In Chicago, families at Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group can sit behind frosted-glass panels to have serious conversations in private.
When hospitals are able to accommodate visitors with different circumstances, loved ones remain calm and, crucially, close to the patient.
Some hospitals are even going so far as to allow loved ones to help with patient care. Intermountain Healthcare in Utah found that letting family members perform some hospital staff functions reduced rates of readmission.
When hospitals design spaces with visitors in mind, patients and loved ones alike feel at home, at ease, and connected with one another. It's time we treat loneliness like the vital sign it is — by making healthcare spaces a little more welcoming.
Dick Resch is CEO of KI Furniture, a Green Bay, Wisc.-based manufacturer of innovative furniture and moveable wall system solutions for education, health care, government and corporate markets.