Teaching kids to take care of themselves today could mean healthier adults tomorrow, which is the goal of Memorial Health System in South Bend, Ind., with its HealthWorks! Kids' Museum.
Through interactive hands-on (and feet-on) exhibits that demystify the human body, and state-of-the-art classroom and theater presentations, the interactive health museum and learning center encourages exploration for its target audience of kindergarten through sixth-grade visitors. Using computer simulation and modeling, HealthWorks! aims to help children better understand the long-term benefits and consequences of their health decisions.
The 12,000-square-foot museum is the brainchild of Memorial, a private, community-owned health system that operates Memorial Hospital, a 405-bed acute-care facility, in addition to several outpatient facilities and clinics. HealthWorks!, which was designed by both the system and local residents, is one of five different projects Memorial Health helped build to advance a broader approach to contemporary healthcare. The museum idea may spread to other communities around the U.S.
The concept, called a "destination community," takes a holistic view of healthcare, addressing not just the physical health of South Bend residents but underlying issues such as homelessness, literacy, crime and the environment in the area. As part of Memorial's continuum-of-care strategy, HealthWorks! serves residents and visitors in partnership with the city's Center for Integrative Healing, Center for the Homeless, Leighton Center for Senior Health and the South Bend Heritage Foundation, an urban-renewal organization.
"(The destination community concept) is oriented to stimulating site visits, bringing leadership teams out of their own community to get into some new ways of thinking to really make innovation spread," says Philip Newbold, Memorial's president and chief executive officer. "We're encouraging teams to see some new models and take that learning back to their communities."
Building partnerships and sharing resources between healthcare systems and city government and educational organizations is key to implementing longstanding benefits, he says.
"Our health and hospital foundations are really undergoing tremendous change," Newbold says. "They're taking on some interesting new roles in the community, and they're changing it."
Part of the shift has occurred over the past decade, as healthcare providers have moved from upholding a purely medical model to one that includes quality-of-life issues.
"While it's always going to be important to operate the best acute-care facilities to provide clinical services, if we do only that, then we will never significantly improve the quality of life or health status of our community," says Reg Wagle, vice president of Memorial Health Foundation, the system's charitable arm. "Unless we're out there actively engaged in learning new approaches to prevent those conditions, then we're not really doing all of our job."
The curriculum approach taken by the HealthWorks! project team was to create an innovative, interactive environment that teaches children how their bodies work and the consequences of what can happen down the road if they neglect their health. An inviting array of entertaining and informative exhibits presents choices and behaviors that lead to optimum health.
At the museum's "Skin Crawl Wall" for example, children climb a cushioned surface resembling skin, magnified to show how the epidermis protects the body from germs. "Virus Invaders" gives visitors a chance to take turns playing the role of a lifesaving white blood cell in an old-fashioned shoot-out game to fight off bad bacteria. Meanwhile, the "Main Brain" exhibit offers kids a firsthand look at how the brain functions.
Building an idea
HealthWorks! was conceived in 1993, when management at Memorial Hospital recognized a need to expand the facility's rehabilitation/health club services. But administrators also wanted the new "HealthPlex" site to serve a broader purpose in the community. After visiting an in-house children's learning program at Lankenau Hospital near Philadelphia, Memorial's vice president of marketing, Diane Stover, proposed an educational site for kids.
"They had a little classroom at the hospital where they invited kids to come, and it had a model of the human body with lights running through it," she says. "It gave us some great ideas."
Memorial spent the next few years sending community members to visit similarly structured health education centers and conducting focus groups with both city leaders and children to discuss educational and learning goals for the museum. Hundreds of children participated in the development of exhibits and displays.
Using state education models as a base, Memorial developed a final curriculum with a custom-design option available to complement material already being taught in the school classrooms.
"We're working on implementing a traveling HealthWorks! model where we can go out to the schools and do some follow up work so that HealthWorks! becomes more than just a once- or twice-a-year visit," Newbold says.
Memorial recently received permission from AM General Corp., manufacturers of the Hummer sports-utility vehicle, to create a HealthWorks! Hummer. The system-owned and operated military-style vehicle will be aimed at an older audience of children from 9 to 14 years old, and it features a large dome on the rear of the vehicle that resembles a brain. Other body parts extend from the vehicle with playful whimsy.
Memorial is working with a donor to secure additional funding, Stover says, and it hopes to introduce the HealthWorks! Hummer sometime during the 2001-2002 school year.
Wagle says roughly half of the funding for the $5 million museum, built by Boston-based Jeff Kennedy & Associates, came from the system, while the remaining $2.5 million came from donors, founding partners and families.
The more the merrier
Chuck Canfield, the mayor of Rochester, Minn., home of the Mayo Clinic, has visited the museum. Canfield expressed enthusiasm in developing a similar children's health museum and learning center, perhaps in partnership with Mayo.
"The idea of a facility here in Rochester that would show kids how the body works and how to make sure that it keeps working by the choices you make is a perfect fit for this city with all of our medical interests," Canfield says.
He says he already has called a meeting of city leaders to create an initial board, explore financing and weigh possible locations for a museum.
"We are really pushing to try to replicate this around the country," Newbold says. "The idea would be to have dozens where we could do more in terms of sharing exhibits, learning and developing some research in various aspects of child learning." Earlier this year, Memorial also welcomed representatives from Duke Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
To provide resources for other hospitals interested in re-creating Memorial Health's successful model, the system has authored a lengthy online learning history outlining their challenges in developing and building HealthWorks!. It's available on the museum's home page at www.qualityoflife.org/healthworks.htm