Hospital ward colours and speed of recovery

Multiple colours as one sees in children’s wards could lead to misinterpretation by the patient leading to more fear. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Qn. I have been visiting patients in several hospitals for some time now and didn’t fail to notice the unique choice of paint colours on walls. Why is this so?

Having practised in and around hospitals for the past 45 years or so, I must say that your question comes as a complete surprise to me. I have not noticed the colours you have studied. I have not noticed the colours as you have, other than in children’s wards that are colourful indeed.

Adult wards in my recollection are usually in bland colours with white and blue or cream coming to mind. How dull!

If you are asking if the colour in the wards in any way any influence how patients get better, then the answer (sadly) is that I am not aware of any study that has compared the colour of the ward with rates of getting better. It might be a good subject for a master’s student.

That said, we do know that the environment has a great impact on how quickly people get better (or worse). An easy example is to take a patient who has asthma into a smoke filled disco which has no windows. They are sure to get a severe asthmatic attack.


Similarly, if you go out into a severely cold place, and remain exposed, you could get pneumonia. In a similar way, dehydration from exposure to extreme heat can be a serious medical emergency.

The environment can make medical conditions worse or even better.

We saw a man last year who was in delirium tremens. This condition comes about in persons who abuse alcohol.

1When a person who uses large amounts of alcohol suddenly stops drinking he goes into a state of withdrawal. Our patient had stopped drinking because he was admitted to hospital following a road accident. He had a broken leg and had other soft tissue injuries.

On the second day, he went into a full blown delirium tremens. He had to be nursed in a quiet, well lit room painted in very light and plain colours.

It was also a room at the end of the ward where sudden noises and movements were least likely. Silence and reduced activity were important to his recovery.

The man was severely confused, was sweating excessively with a rapid heart rate. In a state of extreme agitation, the man kept trying to get out of bed. He was screaming and shaking, saying that he was being followed by snakes and vermins.

He saw other visions that nobody else did and asked people not to speak loudly because the devil had come for him.

He described the fire that awaited him in hell and said he could see pink elephants and pigs dancing with each other in his room.

The seats in the room looked like big oddly shaped houses and he said he could see soldiers marching in and out, many of them covered in blood.

The dead ones would get up and kill those that were not dead. None of his stories made any sense. Those around him did not hear the voices of the dead that were shouting obscenities at him.

At one stage, he got into a generalised fit that looked like epilepsy. That is when he was moved into intensive care.

He later recovered after heavy and continuous sedation, monitoring of his vital organs, and replacement of fluids, as well as general medical support. He got better.

Like you, perhaps, a junior doctor who had not seen such a complicated case wanted to know why the patient had to be nursed in such an isolated room, with minimal chances of stimulation.

The answer given was that any stimulation of a patient in DT’s is likely to make the condition worse.

Multiple colours as one sees in children’s wards could lead to misinterpretation by the patient leading to more fear.

Any sudden movement or noise might have a similar effect. The well lit room with white paint was ideal.

Given the foregoing, it is possible that many hospitals you have visited have assumed this conservative attitude in the belief that a patient is usually too busy getting better to want to have to deal with novel and exciting colours.

There might be other explanations. Ask the next doctor you meet in a hospital and see what he says.