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Sick Building Syndrome: Healing Health Facilities

Innovative strategies improve air quality inside health-care facilities so that patients don't end up sicker than when they arrived

When we think of Sick Building Syndrome, the first context that comes to mind for most of us as the cause of the coughing, discomfort, and irritation usually associated with it is a hermetically sealed, over-air-conditioned high-rise office building. The last place you would expect to encounter it is in a building meant for healing. Yet hospital occupants, patients and staff included, are just as likely to fall victim to building-related illness as office workers. In fact, a recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows that, outside of the manufacturing sector, work-related asthma rates are higher among those employed in the health care industry than in any other group of workers.

When it comes to the indoor environment of health care facilities, the chief concern doctors have for their patients remains infection control, especially since weakened immune systems are more susceptible to contagions. Estimates from the Institute of Medicine indicate that nosocomial infections—those contracted by a patient while under medical care—account for more deaths annually in the United States than motor vehicle accidents. While there is little design professionals can do to prevent hospital-acquired infection that results from human error—improper sterilization, for instance—architects and engineers are putting into practice inventive measures to improve the indoor air quality (IAQ) of health care facilities and reduce the risk of airborne ailments.