Architects and designers who are given the task of creating a healing, welcoming, and familiar medical environment for children are in an unenviable position. Given that the patients' needs are drastically different from those of the designers, as well as the common inability of children to concretely express their clinical and personal needs, the creation of pediatric settings carries a burden absent in similar adult settings. But the staff at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, in a continuing effort to receive critical feedback and information from their patients, recently completed a contest that allowed children of various ages to describe their experience in one of the most basic ways possible: draw a picture.

In anticipation of the hospital's new West Tower expansion, the “This is My Children's” contest, which took place in May and June 2008, collected upwards of 800 drawings from patients, their siblings, and local children, depicting their experiences and vision of the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. With four age groups—3 to 6, 7 to 10, 11 to 14, and 15 to 18—and a variety of depictions and styles, the contest looked to not only give administrators insight into how children saw the hospital, but also to give the children a voice to express their impressions of the hospital and give thanks for its care.

Stephanie Hungerford, senior public relations specialist at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin says, “The premise of the [‘This is My Children's’] campaign is creating community engagement with our hospital. We want people to feel connected to our hospital and we thought that by introducing an artwork contest, it would provide some of the youngest people in our community with the opportunity to feel that sense of connection.” Jo Camarata, the hospital's family services director notes, “We're building the new tower and wanted to know what they think about us. That's why we did it. We wanted to have our patients, our kids, our siblings—we had a lot of siblings that did a lot of the drawings—to tell us what they feel and what they want their hospital to look like.”

Camarata, who participated in the final selection of the contest winners—those selected received an $800 gift certificate to Wisconsin Dells Waterpark—was overwhelmed by the images and depictions of the hospital. “Our kids are very honest,” says Camarata. “To see what we do through their eyes is very humbling. That's where the heart tugging really came in. These are our kids talking to us and showing us. This isn't me as an adult or the parents saying something. These are our kids, the ones that we take care of saying, ‘Thank you for being there.’”

The images, which are accompanied by a brief paragraph written by the children describing their experiences, range from pictures of the hospital's exterior adorned with hearts, flowers, and stars, to metaphorical depictions of the hospital and views of operation rooms. Of the winners, Camarata says, “We looked at originality, creativity, those types of things. That's what I was looking at: what kind of sparked, what caught your attention that way. I think the stories added to those pictures. You're reading the stories and getting all choked up and the whole thing.”

But the project goes much further than simply selecting a few winners. The hospital has a number of different projects in process for not only the winners but also a mass of the pieces that were submitted. “We're using the artwork a few different ways: we're putting together a traveling display that actually just arrived,” says Hungerford. “We'll go to various venues throughout the community. We're hoping to travel to libraries, shopping malls, and city halls, that sort of thing so that other people can see the artwork. We do hope that some of this artwork will be featured in our new children's hospital.” Hungerford also noted that the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin has a long-standing program that works with local schools to get students artwork for display in the hospital itself. In addition, the hospital also plans to make a book for display in the hospital, that will later be available for purchase, as well as an interactive website that features the children's art and video of the artists.

Though the design of the West Tower was already finished by the time the contest was completed, both Hungerford and Camarata both acknowledge that even these submissions will be taken into account. “No specific changes were made but it certainly gives us a lot of material to work with as we continue to build these spaces,” says Hungerford. “One of the things that we found, and what children were asking for as a constant theme through the artwork, were things that we already had in place, and that was exciting. Things like DVD players in the room and video consoles—we have portable video consoles that go from room to room.”

But this is just in keeping with the hospital's tradition of taking into account the suggestions of its patients. Camarata continues, “Anytime anybody tells us anything, it is always taken into account,” she says. “We have our family advisory council and our teen advisory council. We're always talking with them as to ways that we can improve our service no matter what that service might be. I take pride in our ability to listen to what our kids and families say and to try to put some of those things into what we do on a daily basis.

“When a child thinks about being in a hospital,” says Camarata, “it's not all about the treatment that they get. It's those other things that are important to them also.” With their suggestions in the “This is My Children's” contest, those other things are sure to stand out and will almost certainly make an appearance in the hospital that makes it its business to accommodate and listen to its patients. HD

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Healthcare Design 2008 December;8(12):86-87