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Want Better Health? Look Around You

By Nick Jacobs

As individuals look for ways to improve their health, most often the focus is inward: on what we eat, how we breath, what vitamins or supplements to take or by tracking our heart rate, blood pressure or other vital signs.

That’s all good. But when we concentrate only on our bodies for health, we often forget to look outward, at our environment, and what it may be contributing—or detracting—from our overall wellbeing.

One of my first AHA! moments on the impact of environment on health came early in my adult life while I watched my father lose his battle with lung cancer at the young age of 58. For me, one of the most profound outcomes from the experience of watching dad die in the hospital was my repulsion at the surroundings. Rather than being warm and comforting, they were cold and foreboding. There was nothing healing about the environment, and I knew some of my feelings of helplessness were caused by my realization that even then, in 1975, it simply didn’t have to be that way.

A dozen years later, as CEO of a Convention and Visitors Bureau, I saw up close and personal true hospitality and client-centered attention to detail. I marveled at the attention each guest received. I helped train employees on the art—and it is an art—of caring for our guests, who we immersed in an attentive, beautiful, soothing and nurturing atmosphere.

When I entered hospital administration, I immediately tried to create such a healing environment. Unfortunately, my first three CEOs vetoed my efforts, preferring instead to retain institutional green walls and white sheets, curtains, towels and uniforms. None of which were soothing to our patients.

When I became a CEO at Windber Medical Center, I finally was able to create a healing environment unlike any other at least in our region. I drew on my experience, which also included as a musician and former executive director of an art organization, to take a “plain, white canvass” and make it “as close to home as they could get.” In many ways we mimicked a fine hotel, with healing colors, beautiful artwork and music surrounding our patients and their families.

Our palliative care unit looked like the Ritz Carlton, with balconies, a family area in each room to sleep four, a private kitchen, soft lighting, art and wall hangings. Even roving musicians.

Our lobbies, exam and waiting rooms were decorated by the former hotel manager we hired to oversee housekeeping, dietary and maintenance. We had green spaces indoors and out, elaborate fish tanks, more music, soothing aroma diffusers and fountains everywhere. Tranquility was the order of the day. Each piece of brass glistened and our floors had the warm look and texture of highly polished hardwood.

Our waiting rooms had popcorn or bread-baking machines and herbal tea or coffee services. Our breast cancer center offered dark chocolate and tea and featured a fireplace and decorative wall fountain. Each patient received a specially designed Velcro-clad mammography gown that only exposed one side at a time; dressing rooms featured beautiful, hand-painted privacy screens, mirrored lockers and even deodorant for use post-exam. A private elevator for patients took them from the exam room to their physician’s office without the need to change clothes.

About two years after initiating these changes, something unexpected happened: we had the lowest length of stay, lowest restraint and lowest infection rates of any of our 13 peer hospitals. Even with a hospice, we also had the lowest death rates.

The point of all this is that the environment in which you function can have a profound effect on your well-being. This is true not just in a hospital, but at home, at work and really, anywhere you are. Not long ago, it seemed like everyone was talking about feng shui, which has been defined as a way to live in harmony with the principles of the natural world. In his book, “Make the Impossible Possible,” Bill Strickland, CEO of Manchester Bidwell, a jobs training center and community arts program in Pittsburgh, credits the layout and design of his center as essential to the success he has had in changing the lives of literally thousands of individuals, most from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“The beauty we’ve designed into our center isn’t window dressing; it’s an essential part of our success,” Strickland wrote. “It nourishes the spirit, and until you reach that part of the spirit that isn’t touched by cynicism or despair, no change can begin. You can’t show a person how to build a better life if they feel no pleasure in the simple act of being alive.”

One more example: For almost 20 years, spanning two careers, I used to drive through a five-block city area littered with some dilapidated houses that it was hard to imagine anyone living there. And yet, in the midst of such despair, sat one house that from early spring to late fall was encircled by a garden of wildflowers so brilliant that the rest of the neighborhood seemed trapped in a 1950s black & white television show. During an otherwise depressing drive, that house provided me with moment, however brief, of pure pleasure and appreciation. It just made me feel good.

I eventually got to meet the woman who tended and nurtured that garden for more than 50 years. Her name was Twyla, a lovely woman in her 80s. I asked her how she found the resolve over all those years to produce such beautiful flowers. What I didn’t add to my question was, “ … in such otherwise depressing surroundings.”

Twyla’s answer was as simple as it was profound.

“I can’t change how my neighbors choose to live their lives,” she said. “I can’t reverse the employment levels in this city. I can’t erase the pain, hopelessness or sadness brewing in people’s hearts. But what I can do is demonstrate each and every day that a positive outlook, a commitment to excellence wherever you live and a desire to make things even just a little better for anyone who drives by or lives near me is possible.”

She paused, then added, “I just try to give them a little hope through the beauty of my gardens.”

It’s undeniable that there exists a link between body, mind and spirit. The more we nurture one, the greater the positive impact on the other two. You don’t have to wait until you are sick and hope you end up in a hospital designed for healing, visit the Manchester Bidwell Training Center (although Mr. Strickland has always welcomed guests) or drive through a blighted neighborhood in hopes of finding a mini-Garden of Eden.

All you need do is examine your own surroundings, those you have the power to change, and make an effort to bring more beauty in your life, through art, music and anything else that just makes you feel good in a positive way.

Nick Jacobs is a partner with Senior Management Resources, LLC, a senior leadership healthcare consulting firm. He is a founder of the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine, former board member and officer of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine and served on the Executive Committee of the Integrative Health Policy Consortium. A former hospital CEO and founder of two genetic research institutes, Jacobs maintains a website, Healinghospitals.com.



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