“When we decided to create a museum exhibit promoting good health, and started doing some research, the public’s attitude came through loud and clear,” said Jan Rice, director of the Hospital Educational Foundation.
“People told us that they didn’t want to hear about health because ‘it nags you.’ So our goal became giving people a positive message instead. We created an exhibit which would help them get a sense of their own health and then show them that health is something they can change, if they know their options.”
At Health for Life, the exhibit at the California Museum of Science and Industry born from Rice’s resolve, positive messages abound. Since the exhibit opened before the Olympic Games in 1984, about 5 million museum visitors have tested and evaluated their health at interactive computer testing stations, expressed their opinions on community health issues, explored how hospitals operate, learned about nutrition, and walked out the door holding a personal health profile.
“You get hooked on this exhibit because it’s your own,” Rice said. “You’re testing something that belongs to you, and the personal relationship with the information draws everybody in.”
On entering the exhibit, visitors check in at the computer “ticket booth,” where they enter their name, age and sex into the machine and receive a coded plastic ticket, like a credit card. They then move through seven stations measuring height, weight, flexibility, reactions to stress and other aspects of their health. The results at each station are recorded on the ticket’s magnetic strip and finally are printed out for a permanent record.
Although much of Health for Life was designed with junior high-aged youngsters in mind, people of all ages appeared to be enjoying the lively, colorful exhibit on a recent weekday morning. As an elementary school group moved from station to station, an elderly couple giggled over the blood pressure test, where the computer display tells the user, “Just sit down on the stool and relax.” After a short pause, it adds, “That’s it, you’re relaxing.” When the blood pressure cuff starts to tighten mechanically around the user’s upper arm, the machine counsels, “Don’t worry. It won’t hurt.”
Unexpected information also is supplied. For example, the computer at the “height and weight” location also calculates the user’s total surface area, a statistic rarely considered by diet buffs. Valentines and romantic sheet music decorate the section dealing with the heart. At the “balance” station, the exhibit offers answers to questions such as “Why do we get dizzy?”
Health for Life is the only museum exhibit of its kind anywhere, according to Rice. Also unique is the way that it was financed--not by the Museum of Science and Industry or by funding sources in the public sector, but by a coalition of hospitals, community-service agencies and health care-related businesses. They were solicited by the Hospital Educational Foundation, a project of the Hospital Council of Southern California, a trade association of 242 hospitals in six counties. While single corporations and individuals have sponsored many exhibits at the museum in the past, Health for Life marks the first time that a group of contributors has been gathered under an umbrella organization to underwrite a large project.
The 26 contributors donated $25,000 each, which paid for developing and installing the exhibit and will provide for five years of maintenance. In recognition of this new approach to funding, Health for Life was recently honored with an award from President Reagan’s Private Sector Initiative program, which singles out projects that reflect the spirit of volunteerism and community action.
“As any profit-making company, we feel we have a certain obligation to the community in which we operate,” noted Gerard H. Smith, vice president of health affairs for National Medical Enterprises, one of the contributors and a corporation that owns and operates a number of hospitals, many in Southern California. “We thought that this was an excellent opportunity to participate in a successful community-education effort.”
Songs About Food
The centerpiece of the exhibit’s nutrition section, called “Foodworks” (donated by Mrs. Charles (Tex) Thornton), is a ‘50s-style diner, complete with neon sign and countertop jukebox that only plays songs about food, like “Java Jive,” “Chicken Rhythm” and “Salt Peanuts.” Sitting on the stools, “customers” watch a video of a red-haired, pink-uniformed waitress in a crowded diner, who asks them to chose among dishes by touching an interactive television screen. She then lets them know, in classic waitress-ese, whether they’ve made a healthy choice. The “Film du Jour” combines vintage motion-picture scenes about food with advice on eating right, and four full-sized pushcarts contain appetizing replicas of the four major food groups.
Good News and Bad News
Adults can obtain a “health inventory” at one station, where users punch in answers to a battery of questions on life style, exercise, nutrition, alcohol and drug use and the computer lets them know whether they’re on the right track, commenting, for example, “Your health habits are good, but with a little work they could be excellent.”
In an effort to promote understanding of some current health-care problems, the exhibit also includes a “voting station” where visitors see short video case-studies on health issues and are then invited to express their opinions on them by a computer-recorded vote. One such study, for example, presents a “potential heart attack victim,” a man who is overweight, overstressed, smokes two packs of cigarettes a day, doesn’t exercise and refuses to reform his habits. Viewers are asked to vote on whether insurance plans should penalize those who could voluntarily reduce their health risks but refuse to do so.
Overall, though, Health for Life focuses on teen-agers, with the hope of influencing their habits and therefore lowering future health-care costs.
“It’s unlikely that an adult who smokes two packs a day is going to come down here, look at the exhibit and quit,” Rice said. “But a teen-ager who’s contemplating starting smoking might decide not to. We decided to concentrate our efforts on those whose life styles we had the most opportunity to change.”