Your Latest Health Care Provider: A Plant

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Patients in waiting room of doctor's surgery

You’ve got a lot on your mind when you’re sitting in your doctor’s waiting room — how crummy you may be feeling, how much your blasted co-pay will be, how long you’ll have to wait before somebody actually sees you. You’re probably not giving a lot of thought to whether the room is decorated with a good supply of healthy plants — but maybe you should. According to a new Scandinavian study, a little waiting room greenery may actually help you feel better.

The research, published in the journal HortScience, was a collaborative effort by investigators from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Sweden’s Uppsala University. The investigators focused their work on a large sample group of 436 cardiac and pulmonary patients at the Røros Rehabilitation Center, a clinic in Norway.

Half of the patients went through a four-week series of visits and treatment while the waiting room was left in pretty much the condition in which the researchers found it — which is to say pleasantly furnished and lit, but with only a few scraggly looking plants scattered about. The other group went through the same treatment protocol, but during their visits, the waiting area was filled with 28 leafy, healthy, altogether happy-looking plants. All of the patients completed questionnaires about their general sense of well-being during their first visit and again at two and four weeks.

When the investigators went through the patients’ questionnaires and medical records at the end of the study period, they noticed some striking differences — and some equally striking similarities. All of the volunteers had improved on a range of objectively measurable scales such as blood pressure, heart rate and respiration — and that wasn’t a surprise. Getting healthier was why they came to the clinic in the first place and they all followed the prescribed protocol. What’s more, there weren’t even any significant differences in the precise degree of improvement enjoyed by the two groups.

But that wasn’t the case when it came to the subjective assessments of well-being, as measured by the questionnaires. When these results were tabulated, the group that had spent time in a waiting room softened by greenery just felt plain happier and healthier  than those who’d been in a plant-poor environment.

Over the decades, there have been no shortage of mind-body studies showing that for people battling illness, subjective feelings of well-being lead to even wider benefits. The greater the sense of wellness you feel, the healthier you’re likely to become. This particular cause and effect was not observed in the current study, but in different settings, plants might well have a more direct impact on actual physical health than they did here.

For one thing, the researchers noted that the clinic used in their research was very well-run, providing top-flight care under which “the participants were mobile and exposed to a variety of treatments and activities.” The benefits from those interventions might simply have swamped the subtler ones the plants could provide. What’s more, the clean, modern and coordinated decoration was already easy on the eye — to say nothing of the vistas of the Norwegian mountains just outside the window — so again, the plants’ contribution might not have been as great. In less attractive waiting rooms located in less scenic places, the power of the plants might have more of a chance to show itself. And since most of us don’t fly to Norway to see our physicians, a little more waiting-room green might indeed help us get better faster.