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Dome - Not Just Pretty Pictures

Dome March 2015

Not Just Pretty Pictures

Date: February 27, 2015

A 24-hour channel available only on hospital televisions calms restless nerves and makes way for restful healing.

Lauryn Saxe
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Intensive care nurse Lauryn Saxe often sees the calming effect of the C.A.R.E. channel on patients—and their families.
Photo by Keith Weller

Through a bank of evergreens, broad, snowy mountains stand watch over a lake. Moments later, Pacific waters lap at a crystal-white beach. In the background, piano and guitar music provide a gentle soundtrack.

You’re not hiking in glacier National Park or along the Oregon coast; you’re actually in a patient room at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where the television is tuned to the C.A.R.E. Channel.

Only available in hospitals, this channel was created from the belief that images of nature promote healing. It offers a 24-hour schedule of programming that features original music and nature scenes from national parks across North America.

“I love this channel,” says Mary Margaret Jacobs, Johns Hopkins Hospital patient and visitor services director. “It creates a peaceful and quiet environment and helps patients and families relax and focus.”

An acronym for “continuous ambient relaxation environment,” the C.A.R.E. Channel is more than pretty pictures and soft music, says Susan Mazer, CEO of Healing Healthcare Systems, the Reno, Nevada, company that produces the channel. 

She cites research by hospital designer and architect Roger Ulrich, which found that patients whose rooms have windows overlooking nature recover from surgery more quickly than patients without such views. That finding corresponds with the biophilia hypothesis advanced by biologist E.O. Wilson, which holds that humans are biologically programmed to be attracted to and comforted by the natural world.

Easing Anxiety and Pain

More than 800 U.S. hospitals subscribe to the C.A.R.E. Channel, including all Johns Hopkins affiliates. A subscription includes a computer drive stocked with nearly 100 hours of high-definition nature scenes that, for most hospital patients, never repeat.

The channel takes viewers through meadows, over mountains, past waterfalls. Scenes are programmed to coincide with viewers’ real time, helping semiconscious patients distinguish night from day. For instance, the channel broadcasts a black, star-filled night sky and a soundtrack of harp and guitar music from 10 p.m. until dawn.

Nurse Lauryn Saxe says she and her colleagues on the medical intensive care unit credit the channel with soothing confused patients. “When patients don’t know where they are, the C.A.R.E. Channel can help with a sense of a calm and peacefulness.” She believes the channel is even more beneficial in easing the anxiety of family members.

“People can kind of get lost in these scenes of unbelievable beauty,” explains Ford Corl, who heads the film crew that spends as much as 10 days on location shooting scenes for the channel.

Tranquil natural environments may even lessen physical pain. Jacobs says that the hospital’s pain management task force is working on a “pain control and comfort menu” that will include the C.A.R.E. Channel as a “tool” to relieve pain without medication.

A Familiar Path to Relaxation

If you think you’ve heard the channel’s original soundtrack before, that’s by design. It is familiar enough to calm nerves but not so recognizable as to evoke specific memories or associations. The soundtrack is entirely instrumental, Mazer explains, because voices and songs can evoke powerful memories and feelings. A song that’s soothing to one person might trigger bad memories in another. Either effect will distract from what she calls “the therapeutic environment.”

The same applies to any visual references to people. While the channel presents a variety of wild animals and birds, it avoids any suggestion of humans. There are no cabins in the mountains, no picnic baskets on the beach.

“A sailboat on a lake is a distraction,” Corl says. “Suddenly the patient is thinking about what it’s like to ride on it. The more we can get patients to focus just on the beauty of nature and music, the less likely they are to think about stressful situations.”

Mazer says commercial television, with “so many loud, fast, angry people and images,” can be unsettling, even terrifying, for people who aren’t fully conscious or are cognitively compromised.

Instead, the C.A.R.E. Channel helps patients focus on the moment at hand. “The most healing moment of all is when we’re not worried about what’s happening next and we’re not recovering from what happened last,” she says. “It’s when we’re not thinking about anything but are just fully there.”

—Patrick Smith