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Digital Nature: Designing a healing environment to prevent ICU delirium

How can design and technology bring a relaxing experience in ICU?

The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) is one of the most technology-intensive places in a hospital. It is here that medical staff perform intense interventions for high-risk patients. The design and development of the ICU has focused on clinical activities, but the experience of patients has often been overlooked. Traditional ICU environments, with the overload of noise, artificial lighting and lack of proper sensory stimulation, can be very distressing for patients. This can contribute to delirium – a common and severe brain dysfunction  – occurring in up to 80% of ICU patients. However, that same environment has the potential to become a healing space that promotes sleep, relaxation and orientation, thus becoming an important tool for preventing delirium.

“How patients feel matters and influences their recovery. The physical environment plays an important role.”
Kim et al.

There is a lot of scientific evidence showcasing the potential of environmental interventions to prevent delirium and to foster the patient’s recovery process. For instance, by making the environment more soothing and relaxing for patients so they can sleep better, by providing contextual cues so that patients can immediately understand where they are after waking up from long sedation, or by stimulating pleasant sensory experiences that distract patients from pain and activate cognitive functions.

The Digital Nature project is a collaboration between Philips Healthcare and University of Twente. The project explores how smart technology can turn the ICU environment into a healing environment accommodating a patient’s physical, psychological and emotional needs. The project particularly focuses on understanding positive sensory stimulations inspired by nature’s healing potential and designing nature-based design interventions (visual contents).

This project takes a patient-centric approach while collaborating closely with other key stakeholders in the medical domain to ensure maximum alignment of our design approach with their needs and requirements and to discuss how the design may change the ICU ecology. The key is involving patients, medical professionals and other stakeholders in the design process.

The outcomes will complement the advanced features of the Philips VitalSky, a personal ICU lighting system.  Design for ICU patient experience demands a shift in the perspective of stakeholders (the decision makers) so that the impact of the physical environment on patient experience and wellbeing is acknowledged and seen as integral to medical treatment.

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