Harnessing the healing power of art and creativity to improve patient care

A new parliamentary report has shone a light on the important role creativity can play in cultivating a healing environment in hospital – using arts at the bedside to aid the recovery process. Here, artist Fay Ballard, who volunteers at Hammersmith Hospital as part of Imperial Health Charity’s arts engagement programme, explains how a simple conversation can lead to significantly improved health outcomes.

The capacity for healing has always been a key element of artistic endeavour. Some of our greatest novelists, songwriters, painters and playwrights have spoken of the cathartic release of creativity. Art – in one form or another – helps us cope with life’s stresses and strains, giving us space to pause, reflect and re-evaluate. Whether we turn to our favourite film after a long and difficult day, sing as part of a choir or perform on stage in the community pantomime, the arts are a natural life support.

How arts support health

In healthcare, the arts have an even bigger role to play. Creativity helps us stay well, recover faster, manage long-term conditions and experience a better quality of life. These are not merely my observations but the conclusions of a ground-breaking new report by a group of MPs tasked with examining the link between the arts and the health and wellbeing of everyone in society.

Their findings add real substance to the long-held belief that utilising the arts can lead to better health outcomes for patients, support hospital staff on the wards and save money for the NHS. For instance, the report reveals that the heart rate of newborn babies can be calmed by the playing of lullabies, that visits to museums, libraries and galleries reduce work-related stress and that ‘arts on prescription’, where patients are referred directly to community arts initiatives, has led to a reduction in hospital admissions of almost a third (27 per cent).

Bringing art to our wards

Here at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, arts programmes organised and delivered by Imperial Health Charity are having a real impact on the care we provide to patients. Since January I have been making weekly visits to the Auchi Dialysis Unit at Hammersmith Hospital, getting to know patients with kidney failure and helping them engage with the arts as part of their recovery. Many have had multiple organ failures, while others struggle with sensory impairment. Most will spend up to four hours at a time strapped to a dialysis machine and unable to leave their beds.

Over several weeks, or even months, my conversations with these patients may lead to an idea for an artwork – and once the seed is sown, I can provide art materials, tips and tuition to help them create a piece with deep personal importance.

I remember Cheryl, one of the patients on the unit. One day I arrived to find her sitting on her bed, looking in discomfort. I knew she was very ill. Would she like to make some art? ‘Yes, I’ll give it a go’, she smiled. I pulled up a chair and we began by looking at lots of images of art throughout the centuries. Which ones did she like and why? Were there colours, patterns or subjects that appealed? Soon we became absorbed in conversation about her dress-making days.

Cheryl was drawn to a couple of quiet Morandi still life paintings, the muted palette and the arrangement of simple vessels on a surface. Would she like to try and copy one? I handed her the paint brush and she made a tentative start, laying down colour on the middle section of the background. Gaining confidence, she continued with the remaining two background areas, working carefully around the objects and showing a high degree of dexterity and precision. I wondered if her fine motor skills in dress-making were coming alive again. Cheryl’s illness had caused her right hand to tremble but she overcame any impediment with excellent hand-eye coordination. ‘I had no idea I would be able to do this’, she beamed.

From clinical to creative space

Creativity is life-affirming, nourishing and uplifting. During my time at Hammersmith Hospital, I have seen patients come alive, laughing, smiling and engaging intellectually. It offers patients stimulation and takes their minds off other things. It also makes patients feel validated and appreciated.

In addition to the financial support it provides for healthcare projects across the Trust, Imperial Health Charity runs an extensive arts engagement programme, including bedside and communal workshops for patients and the Staff Arts Club for members of Trust staff. It also manages an impressive art collection, with more than 2,000 artworks installed across the five hospital sites.

The charity aims to change the way the hospital environment is experienced, to transform what can be clinical and intimidating spaces into bright, uplifting places where visual art is promoted for the enjoyment of all. Its support gives us a wonderful opportunity to bring art into our hospitals and harness the power of creativity to provide the best possible care for patients. 

Are you interested in learning more about the arts in healthcare? For information about Imperial Health Charity’s art collection and audience engagement programme, visit http://www.imperialcharity.org.uk/art-collections or email arts@imperialcharity.org.uk

Imperial Health Charity is the official charity partner for the Battersea Affordable Art Fair, taking place October 19-22. For tickets to the charity’s private view event on October 18, visit http://www.imperialcharity.org.uk/fundraising-events

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