Can hospitals improve patient safety with color?

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Most people love colors around them–in flowers, the sky, and in living and working spaces. We are delighted to see an unexpected rainbow in an otherwise drab sky, or a brightly colored butterfly in a field of grass. In all cultures and across the animal species, feelings of calmness or excitement are provoked by color. However, colors do more than just enhance the enjoyment of life. Many species of insects, fish, birds, and mammals survive by altering their surface colors to camouflage themselves, attract a mate, or scare predators.

Humans generally use other behaviors for survival and reproduction; nevertheless, observing subtle skin color changes in others can be extremely useful. For example, a child’s blush might signal embarrassment, prompting you to slow down and be more tender with your words and actions. Similarly, if when having a discussion with a boss or partner, you observe sudden redness in his or her face, or worse–blotched white and red, you might pause to consider your next sentence.

colorful hospital
Photo courtesy of Edinburg Children’s Hospital

Colors can actually help change behaviors and health! In England, London’s Blackfriar’s bridge was repainted blue to successfully reduce the number of people who commit suicide by jumping from it. The Liotta laboratory in California has used brain MRIs to show that; amazingly, certain colors actually activate usually quiescent areas of the adult brain that are needed to learn new behaviors! Studies show that people react faster and with more energy when they see the color red, perhaps because it is seen as a cue for danger. Colors have a direct physiological impact, altering blood pressure, pulse, and respiration rates as well as brain activity and sleep cycles. In fact, color therapy in used in the treatment of a variety of diseases.

How can color be used in hospitals to enhance communication and create an optimal environment for hospital staff and patients?

Currently, hospitals use colors as indicators: a red light at the fire alarm, a blue light near the security check point. Color is also used to help patients feel comfortable, happy, or soothed in order to promote emotional and physical healing. And different colors are used for different areas within a hospital, and for different ages and ailments. For instance, children’s wards might be painted in bright, playful colors, while other critical care areas are painted in more calming colors. Security and facility offices might be painted orange or another bright color to keep them alert and looking for possible issues before they become problems.

The use of color to enhance patient safety is underutilized. There are many additional ways that color could be incorporated to improve the environment of care and assist with staff behavior:

A hand-washing station could change to a calming blue when proper hygiene has been met
A hand-washing station could change to a calming blue when proper hygiene has been met
  • The nurse call handset at the patient’s bedside could provide a choice of colored lights for the patient to activate, wordlesslysignaling to the nurse station severe pain, depression, or an immediate need for medication or other interventions.
  • A red light illuminating the hand-washing station could alert hospital staff to sanitize their hands, and change to a calming blue when proper hygiene has been met.
  • Medication reminder for nurses: Green could indicate the patient has just received their medicine, yellow might warn them that the patient needs their pain blocker within the next hour, and red indicates an immediate need for medication.
  • Like the shell of the Hercules beetle which changes from green to black with increasing humidity, the color of an indicator on the patient room wall could indicate the relative humidity of the air, allowing for adjustment when needed.
  • Sink faucets could emit a red light if the water temperature becomes dangerously hot.
  • Electrical wires in a moisture-damaged area could trigger a color indicator signal before a short circuit caused a dangerous power loss.


Sink faucets could emit a red light if the water temperature becomes dangerously hot.
Sink faucets could emit a red light if the water temperature becomes dangerously hot.

The exact mechanisms of how color affects us are still under investigation, but it is known that the small differences in electromagnetic energy of colors strike the eye’s retina in unique ways, influencing the brain chemicals that carry messages between nerves and from nerve to muscle. These different light wavelengths modulate areas in the brain that regulate the endocrine system, which controls many basic body functions and emotional responses as discussed in my blog, “Are Hormones Controlling Hospital Energy Use?” The possibilities for improving patient safety and building health are endless if we can “see” the hospital in living color!

In what other ways could color and color changes enhance patient care and create a safer hospital building? Share your comments below.

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