Nature-based solutions are answering the call

By | September 19, 2023

Stress and burnout among our nation’s healthcare professionals is at an all-time high and continues to rise. Last year, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy sounded the alarm and urged our nation to make “confronting the long-standing drivers of burnout among our healthcare workers… a national priority,” projecting a shortage of more than three million essential products. healthcare works over the next five years, in addition to a projected shortage of nearly 140,000 doctors by 2033. And it’s not just nurses and doctors who are seeing their well-being affected; More than 75% of all healthcare executives experience heightened feelings of stress and anxiety.

Furthermore, worker shortages and poor mental health are not just a concern for hospital leaders trying to staff facilities – but rather a factor that directly impacts the quality of care we all receive. The health of our families, friends and communities depends on having a caregiver, nurse or doctor who is consciously present and involved, free from distractions and anxiety.

But there is good news. Exposure to nature is a simple, economical and effective solution that healthcare systems are increasingly incorporating to benefit the well-being of their providers. And according to the data, it’s working.

While healthcare staff burnout is a growing and complex problem – fueled by increasingly busy schedules, excessive patient loads and onerous administrative tasks – we can start with this relatively inexpensive approach. Data shows that immersion or exposure to nature improves overall well-being and substantially reduces feelings of anxiety, depression, and mental fatigue (all well-established contributors to burnout). In fact, simply being close to nature for short periods of time has a direct impact on your body’s physiology: blood pressure and heart rate decrease, our stress hormone cortisol levels drop, and cognitive development and mental health improves.

But what do we mean by nature? When it comes to hospital environments, nature can be an outdoor garden on hospital property, a tree-lined walking trail on a health system campus, or even a green space near a medical center. In fact, it could even be a carefully orchestrated landscape of greenery, bushes, flowers and trees through the window of a hospital or clinic.

And this is where healthcare, as an entire sector, can move forward more innovatively and aggressively. Providing easy and convenient access to nature features, even for short periods of time, is a low-cost, high-reward intervention that has been shown to reduce stress and improve well-being. Therefore, we should more proactively bring exposure to and immersion in nature into healthcare settings – for the benefit of staff, patients and families.

The science and data are clear. For example, a study at a level one trauma center in Portland, Oregon, assigned nurses six weeks of breaks from working in an outdoor hospital garden or six weeks of indoor-only breaks, alternating at the end of each six-week period. weeks. The results were remarkable: nurses found a significant reduction in emotional exhaustion when breaks were taken in the green environment.

Another study on the therapeutic benefits of hospital gardens interviewed visitors to four different hospitals. Almost all respondents reported that they came to the gardens to “relax”, and 95% of users reported that they “feel different” after spending time there. Researchers were surprised to find, however, that almost 6 in 10 visitors to the gardens were staff, with interviews confirming the mental and emotional importance for staff of spending time away from the sterile hospital environment.

Even large, appropriately positioned windows that provide a view of trees, plantings or vegetation can make a difference for hospital staff and patients. I vividly remember, as a child, when my father, a doctor, would take me with him on hospital visits. He would point to the end of the hospital’s long, colorless hallways and tell me that if the architects had put a big window there, patients would have better outcomes and the nurses and hospital staff would be much happier. They would be happier if they could see trees, sunlight and greenery. He also emphasized that each patient’s room should have a large window into the patient’s physical and mental health; They benefit from natural light and views to the outside. “They heal faster,” he explained. Years later, we have data that proves he was right. (He later founded the Hospital Corporation of America, where his suggestions were incorporated into hundreds of HCA hospitals around the world.)

In fact, as reported in Scientific American magazine, “Just three to five minutes looking at landscapes dominated by trees, flowers or water can begin to reduce anger, anxiety and pain and induce relaxation, according to several studies of healthy people that measured physiological changes in blood pressure, muscle tension, or electrical activity of the heart and brain.”

And today there are strong financial arguments to be made for healthcare facilities to invest in nature-based solutions.

Until recently, no one had systematically measured nature’s impact on reducing supplier burnout in real dollars and cents. But now a budgeting tool developed by Dr. Sean Murphy, an economist at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College, with the nonprofit Nature Sacred, can do just that. The calculator estimates the additional cost of burnout through increased turnover, reduced work effort, and the risk of medical liability. Additionally, it projects the cost of including nature-based interventions, the net annual value of these nature-based interventions (including the reduction in patient length of stay for various admission types), and their value in subsequent years. This innovative tool is making the much-needed financial case for including nature in all healthcare settings.

Alden Stoner, CEO of the environmentally focused nonprofit Nature Sacred, who partnered with Dr. Murphy on the tool, has seen the benefits of urban green spaces in action. His organization collaborates with community organizations (including health systems) to create outdoor sanctuaries for health and well-being. She noted that, “Based on what we’ve seen and learned over the past 25 years, working with doctors, researchers, and hospitals, and listening carefully to visitors to these spaces…nature is one of the most powerful and underutilized resources available to address stress and burnout and is a low-cost, high-impact intervention.” Stoner further explains: “Fully employing nature, while being intentional in design to ensure green spaces are accessible and accommodate hospital staff and patients, is a game changer.”

Hopefully this new tool encourages more healthcare systems to invest in nature to benefit both patients and staff. Many already are.

Johns Hopkins Hospital Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, has created a contemplative labyrinth surrounded by greenery and shrubs that is a hub for community activities and respite for caregivers; it became vital as an outdoor waiting room during the height of the pandemic.

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center created the Greenway, a wonderful forested section of the campus that surrounds the ‘Wounded Warriors’ and

their families with the healing powers of nature in an oasis of rest. It combines a patient-centered healing approach with rigorous data on what works to improve veterans’ health.

And Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, created a 6,500-square-foot suspended green space that is connected to the Family Birth Center as well as the Cardiovascular ICU and family waiting rooms – accessible 24 hours a day to all patients , visitors and hospital staff. . It is also notably the cornerstone of compelling research into the relationship between nature and health, including the impact of access to healing gardens on laboring mothers and families, and on nature as a means of combating stress and burnout. among nurses.

Anxiety, stress and burnout in the healthcare sector are not new – but recent data and analytical tools make a strong case for including nature-based solutions in addressing these challenges. We can use nature to improve the physical, mental and emotional health of our healthcare providers while simultaneously investing in our people and the environment. Nature has the power to heal. Let’s also use it to improve the well-being of our healthcare professionals.

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