Creative healthcare: The importance of the Health care enviroment

BY Victoria Jones

When we design and build a hospital, we are building a community. Every person within a hospital is a member of that community, with a role to play. Communities need spaces where they can eat, rest and play; where diverse populations can come together, connect and comfort each other. Hospitalisation can be isolating, having central places where people gather provides a sense of not being alone, sharing challenging life experiences, belonging to a wider community and address that sense of isolation. These central areas can also provide scope for the outside world to connect with those in hospital. While the primary function is to deliver medical care, we must also attend to the emotional needs of the hospital community, providing for better mental health and greater well-being. Research tells us that the environment within which we deliver healthcare, plays a vital role in health outcomes.

Art and creativity has a vital role to play within the hospital community. Art in health begins with the physical fabric of the building, but this should merely set the stage for further creative program housed within spaces specifically designed for ongoing activities and events.

Physical art works should engage us visually and can also be interactive so that we can engage mentally and physically with them. Art and design should be fundamental to way-finding strategies, with features integrated into theming and layering, helping us navigate unfamiliar surroundings while creating a sense of place, not just a hospital.

The art collection carefully curated by Lynne Seaar at The Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, is a stunning example of art enriching and personalising the surroundings.

The best contemporary healthcare architecture demonstrates clear understanding of hospital communities’ needs beyond the delivery of medical care, and recognises the need to accommodate and encourage creativity. Great hospitals no longer provide just medical facilities. Examples include spaces designed for public performance, exhibition spaces, art studios, activity centres, cinemas, even TV studios where patients can create content to be shared on bedside entertainment systems.

In children’s facilities, art and design should spark the imagination and encourage creativity and play. Keeping imagination active and vibrant is vital to their recovery. Children and young people have to be able to imagine getting better, imagine getting out of hospital and imagine getting back home to everyday life. Play is essential to children and young people’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development – teaching how to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts and to learn about themselves and others. For children and young people, play is their way of exploring and processing their experiences and surroundings and so is vitally important in a hospital setting. However, play is also very important for entire families, providing a way to connect and engage with one another in a unique, creative and imaginative way. In designing children’s hospitals, we must provide highly visible, easily accessible spaces which facilitate all types of play and allow children and families to come together, play together – maintaining strong child-parent bonds under stressful circumstances.

A recent design brief for the new children’s hospital in Copenhagen is an exceptional example which demonstrates clear understanding of the vital nature of play in children’s healthcare, with ‘Integrated play’ listed as one of five design principles:

Integrated play.

Children do not stop playing simply because they fall ill. Play must therefore be an integrated part of design, life and experience. This entails not only providing play areas and playtime, but ensuring that play is fully integrated into the entire treatment process. Play can help the child accept illness and treatment, for example, if the child is allowed to treat another person or a toy animal. Play must be a common thread running through the entire stay in hospital.

We intend to take play seriously. The Academy will conduct research into – and provide training in – the link between play and recovery – with staff, families and patients.

Another brilliant example of bespoke spaces designed to encourage play and creativity are the Starlight Express Rooms, provided to Australian children’s hospitals the by Starlight Children’s Foundation. These rooms are creativity hubs which literally buzz with excitement and fun. These spaces are designed and fully kitted out, to accommodate all manner of creative activities from arts and crafts, singing, dancing, film recording, production, screenings, gaming etc. They are the highlight of many children and young people’s experience of hospitalisation. This is an organisation which truly, deeply understands the transformative power of creativity and imagination.

Starlight Express rooms by the Starlight Children’s Foundation

Creativity should also go beyond the building and extend into outdoor spaces. Numerous studies have shown that access to the outdoors, fresh air and sunlight are hugely important. Inspiring outdoor spaces also encourage play, creativity and physical exercise. Strong examples of inspirational outdoor spaces can be seen at The Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, Centenary Hospital for Women & Children, Canberra and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne.

Inspiring exterior spaces at the Centenary Hospital for Women and Children, Canberra. Playground designed by Ric McConaghy.

The integration of arts into both the physical environment and the healthcare experience has been shown to have wide ranging positive impacts which include – reduced stress experienced by patients, families and staff; reduced drug requirements; decreased recovery times; shortened hospital stays; improvements in clinical outcomes; enhanced quality of service provision; improvements in staff job satisfaction and well-being and generally improved healthcare experiences for everyone. With so many benefits to be gained the return on investment is high.

“Jane Collins, previous CEO of Great Ormond Street Hospital, London was once asked by a major donor

‘Can we afford to have art in hospitals?’ to which she simply replied ‘We can’t afford not to have art in hospitals”


Victoria Jones is an international arts and creativity consultant with extensive experience across the creative sector both in the UK and Australia.