Have the winter doldrums got you down? I certainly know my answer to that question as I type this from our offices here in blustery Cleveland. It turns out that just as we all have experienced a good dose of the “winter blues” in our everyday lives, so do patients when they enter healthcare facilities. And it doesn’t exactly help their overall experience there.

According to a recent study by Press Ganey, patient satisfaction scores for hospitals are considerably lower during the winter months, and a significant factor for that decline is what my fellow Northeast Ohio friends and I like to refer to as "SAD"—seasonal affective disorder.

"Patients who come into the hospital already feeling depressed because of the weather, lack of sunshine, etc., are more likely to rate their stay lower than if they came in at a different time of the year,” says Dennis Kaldenberg, PhD, chief scientist at Press Ganey.

Here are some fast facts from the study results:

  • Regardless of region, data shows a dip in satisfaction levels during colder months.
  • Between January and March through the past six years, satisfaction scores ranked below annual averages.
  • In 2010, a study of almost 2,000 hospitals found the lowest levels of patient satisfaction occurred during the month of February. By contrast, the highest levels were recorded in mid-August.

Outside of feelings attributed to SAD, other factors weigh down satisfaction scores during the winter, such as:

  • January through March is often a period with the highest occupancy and patient acuity for a hospital.
  • More patients are admitted through the emergency department during colder months, and patients who enter through the ED generally report lower satisfaction levels.
  • There are often patient flow issues in EDs due to higher winter occupancy.
  • A lack of available beds leads to less satisfying experiences.

Press Ganey suggests that hospitals plan ahead and hire part-time staffers to help during the winter season.

As healthcare designers, how else can this issue be resolved? Perhaps this is where lighting can play a huge role as well as creative solutions to improve patient throughput in the ED. What ideas do you have?