Health Literacy

Using Feng Shui to Improve Healthcare Communication

Article from the Boston Globe’s On Call Magazine, May 2001

By Helen Osborne, M.Ed., OTR/L
President of Health Literacy Consulting

With a history that dates back to ancient China, Feng Shui is an ancient art that can enhance communication. First used to help farmers decide where to plant their rice fields and build their houses, its principles today are used to design interior and exterior spaces in which people feel comfortable interacting with one another.

Finding the right words to say is one important aspect of communication. Creating an environment in which people feel comfortable talking is another. Feng Shui, the art and science of creating an environment that has a positive effect on people, is one tool clinicians can use to improve healthcare communication.

How a space feels, says Feng Shui consultant and lecturer Linda Varone, RN, MA, CFS, affects how people respond at a conscious and unconscious level. While some spaces just don’t feel right and people want to leave right away, other spaces invite people to relax and talk comfortably about personal concerns.

Design and Conversation Do Not Have to Be at Odds

Designed to be functional, hospitals and clinics often have florescent lighting, all-white walls, metal furniture, and built-in desks and bookcases. As a result, healthcare settings can feel cold and impersonal, contributing to a patient’s level of anxiety and discomfort. Larraine Bossi-Smith, RN, MS, CS, a ReiKi Master/Teacher uses the principles of Feng Shui to soften these institutional elements. By adding silk plants, soft music, and incandescent lighting, she subtly creates spaces that feel familiar and comfortable.

Over the years Bossi-Smith has noticed that patients, families, and even medical staff appear calm and relaxed in settings that incorporate the principles of Feng Shui. Varone and Bossi-Smith share ways healthcare providers can modify the healthcare environments using Feng Shui principles. By making simple and often inexpensive changes, clinicians can create environments in which people feel comfortable communicating with one another.

  • Lighting. Most healthcare settings use florescent lights that function by flickering on and off up to 60 times per second. While this is too rapid for the eye to see, this flicker is noticed on a subliminal level and can cause fatigue. To offset this effect, add lamps that use incandescent bulbs. Or let in natural sunlight by opening window shades and blinds.
  • Color. Medical settings tend to be monochromatic. Clinicians often wear white uniforms or lab coats and work in rooms with white or off-white walls. All-white environments such as these can create a sense of low energy, says Varone. To offset this feeling, think of ways to introduce more color. Consider wearing uniforms that have patterns, or add pins or scarves to brighten up white lab coats. As appropriate, suggest that your facility use wallpaper borders or decorative accents to add color to treatment areas and public spaces.
  • Sound. Healthcare settings can be noisy places with frequent overhead announcements, numerous hallway conversations, and equipment that is wheeled from one space to another. To offset these institutional noises, speak slowly and use a soft tone of voice. Create a sense of privacy by playing soothing music or relaxation tapes, filtering out intrusive background sounds.
  • Living things. Plants and animals often help people feel calm. While these may be banned in healthcare settings due to concerns about contaminants or allergies, consider using high-quality silk plants as a way to introduce a feeling of living things to the environment.
  • Movement. Corners are traditionally quiet areas. Increase the sense of movement and energy in these spaces by adding mobiles or wind chimes.
  • Texture. Healthcare settings have many hard surfaces, such as concrete walls and stainless steel examining tables. To offset these, add some softer textures such as throw pillows or egg-crate mattress covers. These items not only counteract cold and hard textures, but also provide a non-verbal message that invites people to sit down, relax, and feel comfortable.
  • Objects that raise the spirits. When patients come in for medical procedures or are admitted to the hospital, encourage them to bring in familiar items from home. Whether a child brings in a favorite toy or an adult wears his or her own slippers, familiar objects can help patients feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar and often stressful environment.
  • Artwork. Photographs and artwork can help people feel calm. Select works that are appropriate to the specific setting, such as pictures of children for use in a pediatric clinic. Use a variety of artwork — not everyone’s taste is the same. As appropriate, include some softly colored landscapes to help people relax and visually escape to a tranquil setting. Consider putting pictures on the ceiling in rooms where patients will be lying on their backs for extended periods of time.
  • Furniture arrangement. Many healthcare facilities have large open spaces, high ceilings, and long corridors. Use furniture and decorations to create the feeling of smaller and more intimate spaces, suggests Bossi-Smith. This can be done, for example, by using moveable bookcases or hanging star decals on the ceiling. For patients’ bedrooms, try to position beds so that the head of the bed is against a wall and the foot of the bed is not across from a door. In offices, try to arrange furniture so that people do not have their backs exposed to a door or hallway. If this is not possible, attach a small bell to a doorway to alert people when someone enters the room.
  • Clutter. There is often a lot of clutter in healthcare settings, both in treatment areas and patients’ rooms. This clutter can be distracting and drag down the energy in a room. To make spaces feel more comfortable, make sure that all visible items are genuinely useful and truly loved.

How To Learn More

Larraine Bossi-Smith, RN, MS, CS, is a ReiKi Master/Teacher. You can reach her at HealingSMITH by phone at (617) 698-8870 or by e-mail at

Linda Varone, RN, MA, CFS, is a Feng Shui consultant and lecturer. You can reach her at Feng Shui Sanctuary by phone at (781) 643-8697 or e-mail at


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Web site

Feng Shui Guild,

Article reprinted with permission from On Call magazine and published by a division of Boston Globe Media.