Art and Healing in Healthcare Environments, Part 3: Empathy and Engagement

Empathy and Engagement: Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

For Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, a top-tier pediatric research and teaching hospital with facilities spreading over 6 million square feet, art has long been an integral part of its mission to improve outcomes and create positive experiences for patients and their families.

But CCHMC’s approach is unique—focusing on engagement with community partners and patients, families and staff to create art that is not only cheerful and provides positive distraction, but is fully integrated with interior design, architecture and space planning in its various facilities.

Engagement can take the form of patients actually making art with their own hands or telling their stories to professional artists who interpret their experiences in the art, says Mary Dietrich, Managing Director of Creative Services at Kolar Design (Cincinnati), which has worked on art programs with CCHMC since 2009.

“The resonating piece for an organization like CCHMC is the opportunity to think about healing in a holistic manner and use art engagement to help patients heal,” explains Dietrich, who holds an Evidence-Based Design Accreditation and Certification (EDAC) from the Center for Health Design. “It’s also a chance for them to give back to the community through the arts.”

Delivering experience

Michael Browning, Assistant Vice President Design, Construction, & Space Management for CCHMC, says more than 1,800 pieces of art have been integrated into renovation and new construction projects since 2009. Most of it has been created through community engagement versus commissioned work.

Browning is responsible for construction and renovation projects, space planning and capital improvements for all of Children’s facilities. And part of his group’s responsibility, he says, is delivering at least a substantial piece of the “experience” component that is so key to CHMC’s mission.

“Our value equation is that CCHMC is the leader in improving pediatric health and our goal is to provide the best value for our patients,” Browning explains. “We define value as ‘Outcome + Experience over Cost.’ Outcomes are clinical and that’s not in my realm, but experiences consist of people, place and process. And we have a huge impact on place.”

CCHMC’s integration of architecture and interiors, branding and wayfinding, artwork and furniture into a well-orchestrated sense of place is enriched further by its approach to art.

“I think what differentiates us is the focus on community-created art,” says Browning. “It’s part of the fabric of every project we do—pulling together patients, families, staff and the community—and to me that’s really symbolic of what we’re trying to do as an organization.”

Engagement and brand

In addition to engaging patients, families and staff and commissioning professional artists to work with them in art-making, CCHMC has forged partnerships with a diverse range of community organizations, from schools to libraries, community centers, youth programs, the park system and arts organizations.

Kolar coordinates the partnerships, works with artists and patients and, importantly, integrates the art with the interiors palette, environmental graphics and how CCHMC’s brand is manifested in the environment.

So how does this all work?

Kolar’s process starts with a discovery/strategy phase that looks in-depth at the space, who is using it and how. “The approach to art is going to be very different for every patient population and functional area,” says Dietrich, “But this step helps us ensure that the art is by them, for them. That is really a key piece.”

For each project, Kolar gives CCHMC partners—whether a high school art class or a professional artist—a theme that corresponds with the brand story being created in a particular space. The creative brief also encompasses colors, materials and project objectives. Depending on the area, it also includes practical criteria such as child-friendliness (no sharp edges, for example) and infection control. For partnering organizations like schools, Children’s provides a stipend for materials.

Professional artists also engage directly with patients and their family members in one-on-one sessions that inform the creation of art. “We have so many great stories about how the act of making art or working with the artists has helped patients and their siblings or parents process what is happening to them and their families,” adds Dietrich. “It’s amazing how art can be such a powerful mediator in this way.”

The new 465,000-sq.-ft. Clinical Sciences Pavilion at the CCHMC main campus includes more than 600 pieces of art that resulted from partnerships with 9 local schools, 144 patients and family members, 80 professional artists and 17 community arts organizations.

“The building is complex, with patient care and clinical research happening in the same building,” explains Dietrich. “The art you need for each of those cases is quite different, so the experiences we created are different.”

The art inside is wide-ranging, from professional pieces CCHMC purchased from galleries (a rare occurrence, says Browning) to an entire corridor filled with artwork created through a collaboration between art and biology classes at a local high school. “The students studied molecular cell structures in biology and interpreted their learnings in art,” says Browning. “This is a great example of how we involve the community and also how the function of the space (in this part of the building, research on cell biology) drives the art.”

Engagement, funding and sustainability

By engaging patients, families and local organizations in creating the artwork in its facilities, Children’s has not only built solid foundations of engagement in its local community, but helped ensure the sustainability of its art program.

The engagement piece is rewarding on many different levels, says Browning. “Not only are we striving to make the hospital experience more cheerful and less scary and stressful for our families, it’s amazing to engage with local schools and organizations.”

Often, the hospital partners with populations that might otherwise not have exposure to art at this level. In one project, CCHMC gave a few dozen students from an inner-city youth organization $50 digital cameras and invited them to create photographs for a CCHMC facility. The result was “powerful” in both the art it created and the way it enriched the students’ experiences, says Browning.

Browning admits he doesn’t have the budget or resources for an in-house curator or a full-blown art program. He includes a “small” art budget in every project he oversees (less than 1% of the total capital budget for each), and the money is allocated strategically, and mostly in public-facing areas. But through the engagement process, CCHMC has found a way to bring art to its healing environments on a relatively low-cost, by-project basis. And it works.

“It’s become a part of who we are,” notes Browning. “Artwork that is primarily patient/family/community-created has become a big part of our cohesive interior brand. And from an ROI standpoint, I don’t think you can beat what we’ve done.”

“By engaging patients, families, hospital staff and members of the community in the art-making process, we’re essentially using art to tell their stories,” Dietrich says. “That creates a powerful sense of ownership and commitment in the place itself, and a great way to help improve outcomes.”

More in the Art and Healing in Healthcare Environments series:


Part 1: Integrating Art and Wayfinding: Seattle Children's Hospital

Part 2: Community and Storytelling: Antelope Valley Medical Center

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