How Mount Sinai is harnessing the power of bright light to boost patient satisfaction

A clinical trial at New York City-based Mount Sinai Health System is testing whether brighter lights in cancer patients' rooms during the morning can boost their mood and help them sleep through the night, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The researchers are working with the hypothesis that strong light affects patients' circadian rhythms, which can improve sleep quality. "We believe that light will affect circadian rhythms, which in turn will affect sleep, depression and fatigue," Heiddis Valdimarsdottir, PhD, a researcher in the Sinai study and assistant professor at Sinai's Tisch Cancer Institute, told the WSJ.

Sinai worked with the Lighting Research Center at Troy, N.Y.-based Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where its director, Mariana Figueiro, PhD, an architect with a background in biology, worked to design light fixtures for the randomized trial.

The fixtures provide dim light or circadian-stimulating high-intensity light. All types of light can affect circadian rhythms, Dr. Figueiro said, "as long as you develop the right spectrum [or color] and the right intensity." Although strong fluorescent lights could work, patients tend to prefer light-emitting diodes or LEDs, Dr. Figueiro added.

Approximately 44 patients have taken part in the trial so far, with half being exposed to intense light in the morning. The other half remained in the "placebo" or dim light, according to Dr. Valdimarsdottir. Although the findings on sleep and fatigue still need to be examined, the early results related to depression are promising, Dr. Valdimarsdottir said.

Around 40 percent of participants were clinically depressed after the first week in the hospital. That percentage remained constant for those who underwent light therapy, but increased to 70 percent among patients in the dimmer "placebo" light.

"What I find amazing is that having more intense light, changing the light in the room will prevent depression" from getting worse, Dr. Valdimarsdottir said. "Usually when you are sick, you want dark around you. You want the curtains closed and the lights off. But...for a few hours, we are stimulating the circadian rhythms."

Researcher William Redd, PhD, a professor at Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine, said dim light in hospital rooms does not cause patients' depression, fatigue and sleep issues. Rather, their cancer and intense treatments trigger these problems. Despite this, Dr. Redd added, "it is quite possible the hospital lighting makes it worse."

The researchers plan to present their findings this November at the International Congress of Behavioral Medicine's annual meeting in Santiago, Chile.

More articles on patient engagement: 
How one Arizona pediatrics practice is revamping patient scheduling for millennial parents
7 ways patients use online medical records, according to ONC research
US News introduces patient experience ratings to physician profiles

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