How Art Brings Humanity and Healing to the Patient’s Bedside

Child patient reaching for tree art

Healthcare professionals are under extreme pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is putting their medical training and resourcefulness to the test daily. Many are going above and beyond the call of duty by turning to the arts to comfort and heal patients.

As a clapback to the virus, singing and dancing have erupted spontaneously in hospitals around the world. Well-wishers from neighboring communities are papering hospital windows with rainbow drawings and words of encouragement. For most clinicians, this gravitational pull toward the arts to soothe, comfort and heal is intuitive. Medical school curricula and textbooks generally don’t cover the arts as a tool for healing.  But research is continuing to show that art can improve the patient experience significantly—and may even accelerate healing.

Music as Medicine

Music has been found to improve patient experiences.  Its potential value today is made clear by a University of Pittsburgh study of patients being weaned off a ventilator. The patients listened to 60 minutes of music of their choice every other day during the weaning process; on days with music, they experienced significant symptom improvements and could stay off the ventilator longer. And because music can benefit almost anyone—patients of all ages, caregivers, first responders and healthcare workers—it is especially potent by helping to reduce the collective anxiety that presents during the pandemic.

Healing Arts on Display

In addition to music, visual arts also brighten the days of COVID-19 patients, in many cases thanks to the efforts of grateful community members. In a United Kingdom hospital, for example, emergency room windows are decorated with rainbows drawn by neighbors. Volunteers have rendered uplifting messages and pictures in chalk outside Mercy Hospital in Ardmore, Oklahoma, to show their support.

Displaying art in clinical settings is not new. Artworks were incorporated into hospitals as far back as the Middle Ages. Facilities of the past even commissioned artworks from masters such as El Greco, Rembrandt and van Gogh.

Research shows that artwork, in particular images of nature, can increase tolerance of pain, reduce anxiety and even shorten a hospital stay. The Cleveland Clinic reported striking findings from a survey about its art program sent to 1,000 former patients. Of the patients who noticed the hospital’s art collection, 73% said it improved their mood and 61% said it reduced their stress. In addition, 39% claimed that it had a positive impact on their comfort or pain levels.

Crafting Personalized PPE

Adding decorative flourishes to facemasks can also bring optimism into critical care environments. Many people today are generously making masks to satisfy the need, but some stand out for their thoughtfulness. Case in point: Ashley Lawrence and her mother, residents of Kentucky, are creating facemasks for the deaf and hard of hearing which have a clear panel that reveals the mouth to allow lip reading. And doctors and nurses at Stanford are also breaking down barriers to connection with their patients caused by their personal protective equipment (PPE). By affixing their personal portraits to their gowns at heart level, healthcare workers are able share the friendly face behind their mask.

How to Support the Arts in the Hospital Environment

The arts can have meaningful benefits for everyone in the healthcare space, particularly in a trying time like this pandemic.  Here are some suggestions for how you can help build that environment:

For Healthcare Workers:

  • Try to find time to celebrate medical successes with music and dance. It may boost the spirits of your colleagues and your patients.
  • Hold a facemask decorating contest for hospital staff and patients.
  • Provide arts and craft materials for patients to decorate their room and the hallways.
  • Take and add pictures of yourself and other healthcare workers to your PPE to help make care more personal.

For Artists and Community Members:

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions?  Are you already using the arts to help you cope?   

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at covid19arts@artsandmindlab.org.  Be well and stay safe.

Lead Image: Cleveland Clinic / Steinkamp

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