Colours in the interior of health-care institutions and their effect on patients’ perception

Silvia Cejpková


Colours constitute an indispensable part of any environment, without exception, and they are also the first “piece of” information people register in a new environment. People have a natural need for variety of colours in their environment and the diversity of colours is the first information given by the environment, which helps people to distinguish its parameters, dimensions and conditions. Thousands of years ago, people used colours to orientate themselves and they still do it when they are in a new environment. Colours affect the body and also the mood and emotions of the users of a space, and they are the visible component of the electromagnetic spectrum. Colour wavelengths are similar to other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum – such as Gamma rays or X-radiation. Colour affects physical responses of humans regardless of the fact whether they are able to perceive it with their eyes, as light affects the whole surface of the body. In academic year 2018/2019, the Colour Laboratory of the Faculty of Architecture of Slovak University of Technology (Laboratórium farby, FA STU) measured the impact of colour (green and red light) on physical reactions of the body. After a short, 4-minute exposure to red light with covered eyes, the difference in the pulse frequency of the people was higher on average by more than 10 beats per minute compared to the exposure to green light (Laboratórium farby (Colour Laboratory), doc. Urlandová, Cejpková, FA STU 2018/2019).

It might be especially useful to exploit the positive impact colours have on human psyche in health-care institutions – which is an environment where people experience a lot of tension and one of the dominant feelings is stress. Therefore, we focused our research on outpatient clinics. The original architectural concept of analysed outpatient clinics built in the past is now the matter of pure intuitive guesswork – with majority of colours with low chromaticity and low representation of black colour. Walls of waiting rooms and entrance areas were designed with only a small colour contrast in relation to the floors. Current technological possibilities, the choice of materials and the colour palette available offer far more options. For this reason, it is not necessary for current design to have detailed knowledge of the design work methodology from the period of more than forty years ago.

Colour shades suitable for interiors are not currently specified in Slovakia either by a single study or a recommendation of the Slovak Ministry of Health, although recommendations formulated based on surveys on the effect of individual shades would make the selection of colours for a specific type of environment easier. It is desirable primarily in older outpatient clinics that are undergoing partial renovation. In contrast to Slovakia, there has been plentiful research conducted abroad on the topic of use of colours in health care facilities and with respect to the variety in the types of architecture of health care facilities, there is a lot of variability in the topic. The applicability of the research is limited by the diversity of health care facilities (outpatient clinics have requirements that differ from e.g. hospitals with long-term hospitalization of patients, specialized centres with treatment of cancer patients, physiotherapy pavilions, etc.), and by the comprehensive nature of the conducted research.

An anonymous survey was conducted in academic year 2017/2018 in several health care facilities with the objective to find out what factors were noticed by patients waiting for medical examination and what requirements they have regarding the surrounding space. Questionnaires were completed by only 30% of approached patients, which indicates a specific mind-set of people waiting to see a physician. The survey was conducted among patients in both renovated and more modern health care facilities. It involved two parts – a questionnaire and comments on the colours in the interior. Based on the inspection of the mapped areas near the entrance and in waiting rooms of outpatient clinics, two trends in the selection of wall colours could be observed – prevailing use of achromatic white in the range S 0300-N and S 0500-N and warm shades in the range Y to Y20R with lower chromaticity – 5 to 15%.

When asked to assess factors affecting the quality of interior areas, patients mentioned the need for cosiness (15.60 %), fresh air (13.72 %), cleanness (9.8 %), sufficient personal space (9.8 %), comfort and enough light (5.88 %) as the most important factors. Cleanness and hygiene were indirectly mentioned in other suggestions too, e.g. settees that are not “sweaty”, fresh air (13.72 %). The responses also showed the importance of perception of physical comfort – i.e. quality of the seating sets, their ergonomics and arrangement with emphasis on personal space. Air quality was mentioned several times in relation to freshness, air ventilation, airy spaces, enough fresh air and complaints about odours from the cafeteria. Sensory impressions regarding space appeared to be of similar importance as visual impressions and some survey participants commented also on sound impressions – music, radio, buzzing of a faulty lamp, etc.

Naturally, good manners and etiquette of the medical staff were given the most prominent position among all other aspects. The human factor will always remain the most important in the contact of patients with a health care facility, however, it does not mean that suitably designed interior could not help to create a sense of wellbeing and reduce stress.

The colours used in the interiors of hospitals undoubtedly have the potential to assist in reducing patients’ stress. This can be done through various methods – simple space arrangement with clear navigation using colours or through esthetical solutions – colour combination may increase the quality of the environment by inducing the feeling of cleanness, noise elimination and optically sufficient personal space. If, for example, multiple factors are not taken into account in the design stage and the designer focuses on one aspect only (e.g. navigation function), and chooses colours for this purpose based on his or her personal preferences, it is possible the result will fail to achieve its full potential with respect to other aspects that are equally important to people/patients/staff (positive effect on mental well-being, perception of cleanness and airy space).

Keywords: colour, chromaticity, interior of health care facilities, outpatient clinic