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Could changing the lighting in hospitals aid recovery?

BMJ Group News

uk hospital room

A small study suggests that adjusting the lighting in hospitals, to mimic the pattern of natural light, could help people to sleep better. The authors suggest this could aid recovery, but we’d need larger, good-quality studies to find out if this worked.

What do we know already?

Having to go into hospital can be a stressful time. People may be worried about their health and what’s going to happen. This makes it difficult to rest, and hospitals can be noisy, busy environments where it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep. As long ago as the 1800s, Florence Nightingale suggested that having adequate natural light in hospital wards where people were sleeping could help people’s recovery. But this is a difficult theory to test accurately.

In this study, researchers looked at the sleeping patterns of 40 people with moderate to severe pain, in hospital. The participants wore devices on one of their wrists to measure how much light they were exposed to over a 72-hour period. The researchers also used questionnaires to record how the participants described their mood at the beginning of the study and every morning, and how severe their pain was (on a scale of 1 to 10).

The researchers then looked to see if they could show any relationship between light exposure and how well people were able to sleep, their mood, and how much pain they were in.

What does the new study say?

Over the 72 hours the light in the hospital wards was very low, and of a constant intensity. The researchers argued that because the light in the hospital wasn’t strong enough, and didn’t vary in intensity in the same way as natural light, people weren’t able to sleep properly.

As a result, the researchers say, people found it difficult to sleep for very long without being disturbed and waking up. Generally, people slept for a few hours at a time, and their sleep was fragmented.
The researchers found a link between light intensity and tiredness, and light intensity and low mood. But there was no link between light intensity and pain.

How reliable is the research?

This was a small, pilot study, which is intended to help guide future studies. We can’t rely very heavily on its results. We would need much larger studies, and a comparison between people in hospital and people who were in an environment with a controlled light intensity, to be more confident these results are accurate.

There are other things that could have made the results less reliable. We can’t be sure how accurate the light intensity readings were. If people kept their arms under their bed covers or away from the light, this would have affected the readings. The researchers didn’t have information about why people were in hospital. Some people may have had more severe illnesses or had stronger painkillers than others. This could have affected how tired they felt, their mood, and how much pain they were in. But the effects of people’s illnesses weren’t accounted for in the results.

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