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The Art of Healing

To the Mainstream

Once considered on the fringe of health care, arts are being used by a growing number of leading medical institutions, including those associated with Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Dartmouth and Vanderbilt. Through SAH, the NEA funds a consulting service to give institutions guidance on creating arts programs.

Lombardi's program, funded through a foundation grant and donations, costs about $75,000 a year -- although Morgan said she could do "the best possible job" with an additional $50,000. She's encouraged by the increase in referrals she's getting from physicians and nurses -- including one memorable day when a doctor wrote an order for a patient to have a keyboard. "The patient had been very agitated," Morgan explains. "I got her a keyboard, and she played so beautifully. She was calm then."

From left, patients Andree Polley, 27, and Denise Simms, 30, do beadwork with artist Deoborah Gudelsky at Georgetown University Hospital's Lomardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. (Andrea Bruce Woodall - The Washington Post)

The Creative Center -- Arts for People with Cancer in New York once had to persuade hospitals to give matching $5,000 grants to pay for a part-time artist-in-residence. Through word of mouth, hospitals now seek out the program, says founding director Geraldine Herbert, and 16 New York hospitals participate. The center's new collaboration with the Whitney Museum and New York University will use art to help enhance the diagnostic skills of oncology fellows by improving their powers of observation.

Further expansion of the arts in health care movement may be hampered by a lack of research, advocates say. A 2003 report conducted by NEA and SAH found only 37 peer-reviewed, published studies of the arts in health care. (Most of these studies showed arts programs to be beneficial.) To persuade the medical establishment that it's worth investing in the arts, some advocates believe they need to gather more clinical evidence of such benefits as reduced hospital stays, fewer medications and lower stress levels.

"You have to be able to measure the impact of what you did on patients, family members or caregivers or professional staff," said Blair L. Sadler, CEO of San Diego's Children's Hospital and Health Center, which has a strong arts program.

Yet measuring the effects of creative expression isn't always easy. The NEA/SAH report noted that "not every benefit derived from the arts can be measured quantitatively. Loneliness, fear, joy and relief are best reported in a subjective way."

At Duke, the Health Arts Network asks a patient to mark on a simple linear scale how much pain he is in. After doing artistic work -- painting, writing in a journal, making a poem -- the patient is asked again to mark his pain level. Often the patient indicates his pain has been reduced without medication.

"That's an easy thing to administer, and it's acceptable in scientific journals," said Duke's Belans.

What the available data suggest is promising. Studies indicate, for example, that aesthetically pleasing environments shorten recovery time and hospital stays; creating art reduces anxiety in patients with cancer; creative writing eases the symptoms of asthma and arthritis; and music lowers stress levels.

An assessment of the Creative Center's artist-in-residence program found significant declines in participating patients' boredom and anxiety, and increases in cheerfulness. More than 92 percent of the patients said the program was "good" or "great" and should be continued or expanded.

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