Hospital healthcare providers have supplemented clinical care with creative arts since the mid-20th century. For example, art and dance therapy have played a supporting role in hospital patient care since the 1930s. Using music to soothe cancer patients during treatment was pioneered at the University of Chicago Hospital as early as 1948. Music was also piped into some hospitals’ surgical suites to calm patients under various forms of spinal, local, or regional anesthesia.1
In recent years, there has been a groundswell of interest in both art therapy and the expressive arts in healthcare, resulting in the proliferation of bedside programs involving not only the visual arts and music, but also dance and creative writing.
According to the Art Therapy Credentials Board, “[A]rt therapy is a human service profession, which utilizes art media, images, the creative art process, and patient/client responses to the created art productions as reflections of an individual’s development, abilities, personality, concerns, and conflicts.”2 Anecdotal evidence has long supported the efficacy of art therapy in treating the chronically ill. But only recently have clinical studies proved that making art and the creative process it involves helps hospitalized patients heal in a quantifiable way.
One such study, conducted among adult cancer inpatients at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital, was published in the February Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. That study determined that a series of one-hour art making sessions with a therapist yielded statistically significant decreases in a broad spectrum of symptoms, including pain, fatigue, depression, anxiety, lack of appetite, and shortness of breath. It also helped reduce apprehension, tension, nervousness, and worry. In addition to the quantifiable positive effects of art making, “subjects made numerous anecdotal comments that the art therapy had energized them.”3
But art therapy, administered by a credentialed practitioner with the specific goal of treating emotional and psychological issues associated with illness as a clinical practice, is not the only type of bedside artistic production happening in hospitals. Expressive art making, which falls under the umbrella of the arts in healthcare movement, has gained a significant foothold. In 2002 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which funds arts in healthcare research, issued a call for creative artists not specifically trained as art therapists to play a larger role in patient care.
According to Elizabeth A. Curry, MA, coordinator of the Mayo Clinic Center for Humanities in Medicine, expressive bedside art-making has a different goal than therapy.
“The art therapist is part of the care plan team,” says Curry. “She writes in the charts.” As guided by a creative artist rather than by a therapist, the very experience of making art—rather than the information a finished work of art may furnish the care plan team—is central to the undertaking. It is the artist’s experience with the patient and the patient’s experience with the media that are important—not the end result. Of this model of bedside art making, Curry says, “it has no therapeutic goal other than to relieve stress.” The scope of expressive bedside art creation administered by an arts in healthcare program is potentially much broader than one that is therapy-based and has the potential to reach more patients.
Among studies of a number of arts-in-healthcare programs, the NEA cites the success of Healing Icons, an art-support program for young adult cancer patients age 16 and older.