You Gotta Have Art

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By Carol Strickland
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

As health-care costs skyrocket, a down-to-earth approach to healing is emerging, complementing high-tech medicine with high-touch arts.

The approach is based on the assumption that incorporating music, visual art, writing and performance into clinical care can increase feelings of well-being and even improve health -- an assumption that medical researchers are beginning to recognize the need to test with evidence-based studies.

Growing belief in the healing value of the arts was on display last month at a symposium at New York's Museum of Modern Art titled "The Value and Importance of the Arts in Health Care." Participants -- physicians, hospital administrators and artists -- were as upbeat as if they were promoting a miracle drug: Integrating the arts into health care is in vogue, said Leonard Shlain, a laparoscopic surgeon in San Francisco, "because it works."

The Society for the Arts in Healthcare, which sponsored the symposium along with MoMA and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, has seen its membership rise. As of 2006, the society estimated that more than half of 2,500 U.S. hospitals that were surveyed offer arts-based programs, said Anita Boles, the group's executive director.

Carol Herron coordinates an arts in medicine program at Texas Children's Cancer Center in Houston that involves visual artists, musicians, dancers, mimes, writers and puppeteers.

"We do children a disservice if all we do is treat the disease," she said. "We need to treat the whole child and the whole family."

And at New York University Medical Center, using art to reduce stress has become a priority, according to Marianne Hardart, director of creative arts therapies.

"There's not anyone it doesn't work with," she said, including adults, adolescents and younger children.

Not all institutions are willing to incorporate approaches of this kind, though, Hardart said. "In medical settings geared toward physical and chemical interventions, we're often considered an adjunct instead of an integrated piece."

That's partly because the research supporting these programs is slim.

Some of the documented benefits -- based largely on short-term appraisals of small numbers of patients -- include enhanced quality of life, patients' increased cooperation with painful procedures and helping staff understand a patient's point of view. Mounting evidence from the few early empirical studies also report reduced fatigue, depression, anxiety, pain and stress, which may boost the patient's immune system.

Letting Go of the Pain

Tracy Councill, who developed an art therapy program called Tracy's Kids at Georgetown University Medical Center's Lombardi Cancer Center, recalled an art project by an 11-year-old lymphoma patient who had been in isolation for months following painful bone marrow transplantation. When he came back as an outpatient, "he made a clay sculpture of a sarcophagus with a mummy-looking thing," she said, which he glazed "with a lot of red to look like blood." This grisly object, she explained, served as "a displaced way of putting that aggression for all the stuff he'd been through into art -- a good way for him to be finished and let go."


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