The Fine Art of Healing the Sick
Embracing the benefits of writing, music, and art
Cutting costs. Evidence of the power of art comes at a time when hospitals and healthcare companies are cutting costs, and studies show that in some cases, the arts can indeed help the bottom line. Using music instead of medication to lull children to sleep, for example, can substantially reduce the cost of echocardiograms by eliminating the need for nurse supervision of medication and reducing procedure time, according to a 2002 cost-benefit analysis at Tallahassee Memorial. Live music played in neonatal intensive care units can send premature infants home up to 12 days earlier, saving an estimated $2,000 a day, according to Jayne Standley, a professor of music therapy at Florida State University. Music helps preemies breathe better and gain weight. And a 2005 study published in the European Journal of Anesthesiology showed that patients who listened to music after hernia surgery required less morphine to control their pain.
To be sure, the arts are not a replacement for medical treatment. "The effects are modest," says the University of Texas's Pennebaker of writing exercises. "But so are the effects of a lot of medical techniques." Says Christopher Rumana, chief of neurosurgery at Tallahassee Memorial, who has studied music therapy before and after brain surgery: "People by and large were happier, but it didn't make someone who was going to die live." Still, he believes music therapy is worthwhile, as it might make patients more comfortable with their doctor and willing to go ahead with treatment. Since his study, all surgical patients at Tallahassee Memorial have been offered an MP3 player so they can choose their own music to listen to before and after an operation.
Arts therapy isn't something just any well-meaning virtuoso or painter can provide. It requires extensive training not only in the arts but also in their particular application with patients. Board-certified art therapists, for example, must have a specialized master's degree followed by one year of practice before they can take their exams for certification by the Art Therapy Credentials Board.
All the same, there still is resistance among the medical establishment. "In the beginning, we had a few doctors say, 'If we didn't have this arts program, we'd have another MRI machine,'" says Elaine Sims, director of the Gifts of Art Program at the University of Michigan Health System. The program now sponsors four bedside musicians, nine art galleries, rolling art carts that let patients choose framed artworks for their rooms, concerts, and visiting performers like the Royal Shakespeare Company.
While the growing acceptance of the arts has been grounded in research, its acceleration may be based on far more personal phenomena: More doctors are gaining firsthand experience. The Arts and Humanities Medical Scholars Program at Stanford University encourages its students to examine the intersection between art and science, while the narrative medicine program at Columbia University's medical school in New York trains doctors to write "parallel charts," where they record their own reactions to patients.
The art of medicine is also being used to help doctors and nurses manage their own stress and avoid burnout. The Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, for example, offers music meditation for oncology nurses--group sessions where nurses sing, listen to live music, and talk about their tough experiences treating cancer patients. And every other week, groups of residents at Beth Israel Medical Center convene in the center's music studio to play the drums, progressing from simple to more complex beats and working out their tension along the way. It seems that the arts can heal not just the patients, but the healers as well.