Communication is key, and the design of any system of messaging must take an empathic and meaningful approach if it hopes to make an impact on its intended audience. For young kids that suffer from severe burns, this is especially the case because they are consumed with fear from both pain and the unknown when visiting a hospital. How can a new communication system of storytelling, that is friendly, vivid and colorful, replace their fear and anxiety with a sense of curiosity and wonder?
The Healing Tree is an immersive environmental design project that aims to reduce patient stress and optimize healing within a pediatric burn clinic in Chile. The carefully curated system of spaces and graphics and culturally based characters and story books help to mitigate children's fears during the process of treatment.
In South America, approximately 7,000,000 kids a year are burned due to varying causes from home cooking to fireworks. The non-profit organization COANIQUEM has made it their mission to open their doors to all of them free of charge to provide the best care possible. In a single year, nearly 2,000 patients out of this large number are admitted and treated but many do not finish the required length of stay which can last up to 12 years. In addition, they also educate hospitals all over the continent in best practices and their approach to the importance of holistic treatment. With 3 centers in Chile, their main facility is a 6 acre site in Santiago complete with living facilities, a school, and state of the art equipment ready for anybody who needs their help.
As brands continue to successfully strategize how to bring consumers into "worlds" through their products and services, there is no reason why the same cannot be done through the lens of social innovation through health care.
"The Healing Tree" follows the adventures of 2 South American children in the search of a magical tree within a fictional Chilean inspired world, the story acts as guide that invites patients into its world and gives specialists a new tool to communicate difficult concepts into a simplified language.
Through the lens of animal friends performing simple tasks structured into the narrative, the educational and therapeutic aspect of the storybook is hidden through the guise of exploration and adventure. This story world can continue to be expanded in multiple ways, through different mediums but will begin in this first phase at the storybook, passport system, and begin with a selected area of the site.
The Healing Tree aims to sustainthe mission of COANIQUEM as they continue to educate hospitals all over South America in burn treatment best practices and to improveretention rates of severely burned patients as they continue treatment from youth into early adulthood.
In Latin America, 7,000,000 children are burned annually. The damage can be long-lasting, and injuries may sometimes inhibit children's bodies from growing normally, with a rehabilitation process often over twenty years. Improving the healing process for kids who suffer from burns is an urgent global need, especially in areas with large populations living in poverty.The non-profit organization COANIQUEM,is a leader in burn prevention in Latin America, lowering that number every year. The fact is, however, children still get burned and while they come to COANIQUEM free of charge, the road to recovery is still a long and scary process. Through human centered designed, the Healing Tree project aims to replace their stress, fear, and anxiety with joy, wonder, and hope through a storytelling system that includes a storybook, passport, and environmental graphics.
Imagination and storytelling are a powerful tool in any kind of design, but when you can combine it with medical research and address patient + staff needs, it becomes a healing aid which can foster a new culture of thinking. For COANQUEM, this is the kind of thinking which can sustain retention rates as well as the mission of COANIQUEM to help patients at this young age to make them want to come back.
The narrative structure of the Healing Tree, partially inspired by the classic tale of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz, will help patients understand how every specialist they meet along their path to healing will teach them a new skill in order to help the Healing Tree grow. By introducing the concept of a mission to help this tree, the opportunity to gamify a scary procedure becomes key in patient retention and understanding of their treatment. COANIQUEM once explained to us that what cannot change is the treatment the children must go through, however, what is crucial is their state of mind before they get treated because it can make a huge difference.
With 2 weeks of in depth research, working closely with families, staff and patients in various co-creation sessions that went from simple art explorations to full on 3 hour brainstorm sessions with staff which they called "IDEA RAINS", we wanted to discover the underlying need for all parties. Many user experience studies of their pediatric patients were performed to understand their daily activities he/she must undergo on a normal day of treatment by analyzing them in their natural habitats. It was not an easy journey, but in the end, we discovered that the most important thing we could impact is the psychology of a child.
Testing children's ability to understand values using a wide range of Chilean animal photos, our SAFE Niño's team asked a sample of 6 children ages 3-6, who were being treated at COANIQUEM, whether they could identify what each animal represented.
All of the kids were able to not only express their understanding of the animal, whether it was the puma which represented strength or the rabbit which liked to move, they would explain them through their own imaginative stories.
The strategy involved taking an existing prevention campaign developed by ArtCenter 5 years ago for COANIQUEM which is already implemented all over South America and turn it into a new story. The prevention campaign featured 2 South American children who always taught their pet to avoid hazardous scenarios that are most common reasons for burns. Kids know their faces and attribute them to prevention but there is no campaign for kids who have already been burned. The Healing Tree creates a new story from these 2 characters, where they journey away from their home into an uncharted land to find a special tree that needs their help to grow. In order to find it, different animals guide them on how to get there. It is never once mentioned in the story that the children are actually burn victims.
Across 10 different departments, each with their own culture and team dynamic, it was crucial to capture the heart of each area to define which Chilean animal character could best represent it to a child. A big part of the research was how to develop something that did not feel entirely new but repurpose elements from its existing culture.
One of COANQUEM's most innovative approaches and what they are known for, comes from their Garment Fitting department which develops expandable garments for kids to wear to keep their wounds from expanding. These garments can range from covering a simple piece of the arm to an entire body which alters the physical appearance and can cause a child to be self-conscious. The animal paired with this department is the native Chilean animal, the Pudu, which is a small deer that remains the same size its whole life. The message that it teaches is that its ok to be different as the Pudu proudly wears colorful armor all over its body to symbolize the garments.
The psychologists use an analogy of rebuilding jenga towers when they break as an act of resilience to a setback and to also encourage teamwork in rebuilding. Since this is a concept the kids understand, the jenga bridge concept was integrated into the story through a team of leaf-eared mice, who work together to rebuild a broken bridge to cross to the other side of the lake to enter the jungle (Physical Therapy).
In Physical Therapy, a series of Chilean rabbit characters represent the need to be active and stretch. In the story, they teach the main characters how to swing through the trees in order to advance to the next area.
As one of the surgeons explained to us, "We can't change treatment, but we can prime the kids beforehand". If we can temporarily replace the fear with curiosity in a crucial moment of uncertainty, then for a moment, kids will feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves and they will want to go on this adventure so a physical aspect was developed as part of this project. One which must feel grand, but yet still be within a limited budget.
As COANIQUEM continues to grow and expand their facilities, the Healing Tree project will raise the value and worth of COANIQUEM and bring in new potential stakeholders to invest in their future growth. By developing a narrative universe where patients are part of the story, this system can continue to grow and cover new areas of the 6-acre site and attract new potential stakeholders and designers moving forward to complete the story so like the symbolism of the tree and COANIQUEM, it can always grow.
The Sustainable Development within COANIQUEM will also be aided by fostering a new culture for staff and specialists in which they are represented and acknowledged as part of this new story so that everybody has buy-in. Each animal and world inhabited by them were a direct result of research and interviews with each specialist to capture all the tasks that patients need to perform.
Disney Imagineering invited our entire design studio to Disneyland on a research trip to guide us on the best methodologies on creating believable worlds for children that have consistency including the rules their employees must follow so that the magic is never lost. This ideology of fostering a culture with COANIQUEM staff and having their buy-in was instrumental in developing this world as a successful communication tool. Everything we have done has been about co-creation and to date, specialists have been through the roof in the discussions about which animals characters we can use and how this new interaction can reach deeper into a child's psyche more than a regular doctor can.
Through various interviews and visits from leading health professionals citing evidence that positive healing environments had a positive effect on psychology, I wanted to do something more than just graphics that created a temporary feeling of easement. Children come to COANIQUEM for an extended length of time, and for some that can be up to 12 years. I wanted to create a story that would not only welcome those kids into this world and enhance their own treatment, but also one where the on-going mission and culture of COANIQUEM is celebrated and the possibilities are endless.