Dialog Series: A State of the Union on Arts in Health and What It Means for Hopkins

At IAM Lab’s most recent Dialog Series talk, Jill Sonke, Director of the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida, gave “a little State of the Union address” on the field of Arts in Health. Before an audience of healthcare practitioners and researchers, Sonke also sought to lay the groundwork for a large-scale Arts in Health and Wellbeing initiative at Hopkins.

Sarah Hoover, the Associate Dean for Innovation, Interdisciplinary Partnerships, and Community Initiatives at the Peabody Institute, introduced Sonke and challenged the audience to think about how the ideas presented could “catalyze us here at Johns Hopkins to create our own vision.”

“The exciting news is that it is a field. We know we have a field because we see practitioners working in this field, employment in the field, we see a prevalence of programs,” Sonke said, before laying out the transformational work, research, and growth she has observed and helped drive at the Center for Arts in Medicine.

Dance in Medicine “is Gonna Be a Thing”

Sonke has a long history of experience and leadership in integrating arts with health spanning over 25 years.  As a professionally trained dancer—she once performed as a principal dancer with the Isadora Duncan Dance Company in New York—Sonke served on the Dance faculty at the University of Florida and began serving as an artist in residence at the affiliated Shands Hospital in 1994.

Because of the student demand and interest in her work, Sonke helped create the first Dance in Medicine course in 1996. “And at that time, our Dean—I will never forget it—sort of leaned over his desk and said ‘I think this is gonna be a thing. You should make an academic center,’” Sonke recalled. Later that year, the University of Florida created the Center for Arts in Medicine. Today, the Center has grown to 15 faculty, and Sonke serves as its Director as well as the Assistant Director of UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine.

Through her work at UF, Sonke showcased the great potential that integrating arts with health could have for patients, their loved ones, and their caregivers.

State of the Art Healing—Using Art

A cornerstone program at Shands Hospital is Dance for Parkinson’s, which offers weekly dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers.  “We’re seeing an incredible body of research that’s growing to demonstrate how dancing can reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and improve quality of life very significantly,” Sonke said.

In addition, they are a telehealth site for the national Creative Forces initiative, which has creative art therapists working with not only to service members and veterans at hospitals but also with ones homebound in rural communities via teleconference.

Sonke talked about the Shands Hospital’s Artist in Residence program which employs 19 professional artists. “They provide patients, their family members, staff members in our hospital with opportunities for creative expression, for connection, for distraction, for enjoyment, and for engagement,” Sonke said. “That just simply makes the experience of healthcare better.”

The hospital also brings in visiting artists so that the healthcare environment is “more humanistic, more welcoming, more engaging, more comforting and more conducive to healing,” Sonke said.

However, Sonke noted, there is an ongoing challenge in collecting scientifically rigorous evidence for these salubrious effects.  “How do we measure it?  How do we quantify these impacts? We see every day these phenomenal responses, we know that the arts are making it better, but how do we measure it?”

A Growing Body of Literature

Research into the interactions and effects that the arts have on health is complex, but the data points are gradually accumulating. “The body of [research] literature of arts and health has been growing for the past 30 years and we’re just reaching the point where… there’s more evidence out there for us to synthesize,” Sonke said.

She shared a number of promising research studies that have come out.  In one study conducted at Florida State University, children undergoing CT scans, an anxiety-provoking procedure for kids, received just 20 minutes of music from a therapist that made an incredible difference, Sonke said.

Music therapy reduced the amount of stress both the patients and their parents experienced and eliminated the risks associated with sedation. “They saved in terms of cost $567 per procedure, they reduced the need for anesthesia and sedation almost 100%, they eliminated overnight stays almost 100%, they put three hours of staff time back on the floor per procedure,” she said. By decreasing the time required of nursing staff, they could provide better healthcare to more patients.

Sonke also announced the release of a new white paper entitled Creating Healthy Communities through Cross-sector Collaboration in collaboration with ArtPlace America.  The paper offers examples of impactful cross-sector collaborations that engage arts and culture to address five critical public health issues: collective trauma, racism, social isolation and exclusion, mental health, and chronic disease.

In addition, Sonke announced that the World Health Organization (WHO) is releasing a full report on November 11 “looking at the evidence base around arts and health interventions, and making recommendations for what the evidence is on the role of arts and improving health and well-being.” This report synthesizes 900 studies based in Europe after examining over 6,000.  “This is a phenomenal consolidation of the literature,” Sonke said.

As a result of the growing evidence base for the effectiveness of the Arts in Health, there will soon be more funding opportunities. “The [National Institutes of Health] NIH is getting on board too. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, he’s a musician,” Sonke said.  In February 2019, $20 million were allocated for research studying the relationship between music and health through the Sound Health program.  “This is one area of our field that has some of the strongest research around music and [neurological] mechanisms involved in the changes that music can make in the brain and the body, which can result in health outcomes.”

A Call to Further Action at Hopkins

The excitement for the growth and potential of the field in the lecture hall was palpable. However, there is still a lot of work to be done, Sonke said. “In general, we as a field have not achieved core outcomes. There’s not consistency in measurements, in outcomes, in keywords. The evidence is hard to synthesize for that reason. But we’re seeing it beginning to build more and more.”

Sonke’s Dialog Series talk was, as the series title suggests, just the beginning of an ongoing conversation. As advisor to an emerging Arts in Health initiative at Hopkins, she came to share her body of work and talk “about what could happen here at Johns Hopkins as people who are doing incredible work at the intersections of arts and health on this campus and in this community can connect more.”

Sonke ended her talk with a call to action: “I’m very interested in any comments you may have or questions about what you’ve heard this morning, or any thoughts you may have about what the potentials are here at Johns Hopkins for this work.”

If you have any comments or responses for the Arts and Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, please reach out to Jill Sonke and members of the initiative steering committee at [email protected] – we would love to hear from you!

You can watch a livestream of the event here.

About The Dialog Series

The monthly Dialog Series at the International Arts + Mind Lab invites today’s thought leaders from the arts, sciences, and technology to share their unique lens on how the arts are essential to our health, well-being, and learning.  You can read about our previous Dialog Series guest, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, Dr. James Gordon, here. Our next guest, Sara Kass, MD, will moderate a panel on creative arts therapies used to treat PTSD and traumatic brain injury amongst military service members and veterans. Dr. Kass is a military and medical advisor to Creative Forces: The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Military Healing Arts Network. Register here


Written and reported by IAM Lab Editorial Assistant Richard Sima. Richard received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and is a science writer living in Baltimore, Maryland. 

Lead Image: Johns Hopkins University

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