Magic tricks, ballet dancing and drumming circles were just some of the arts interventions profiled at Aesop’s ‘Arts in Health’ conference and showcase, hosted by London’s Royal Festival Hall on Friday 5th February.

Aimed at health decision-makers, and organised by founder Tim Joss, the day brought together professionals and practitioners from the worlds of healthcare and the arts, to explore, discuss and make plans for the synergies between the two fields. Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, and Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England, were in agreement that the arts have a unique power to cure, heal and prevent poor health, and that now – given the crucible of pressures facing our health and social care system – is the time to harness this power. 

I have a particular interest in the arts and health as a trained NHS manager, singer, literature graduate and now PhD researcher. My studentship is part of a Doctoral Training Centre called TAnDem (The Arts and Dementia), a collaboration funded by the Alzheimer’s Society between the universities of Nottingham and Worcester, that is seeking to build an evidence base for the arts and dementia.

Observation suggests that creative activities and arts interventions have the potential to significantly improve quality of life, and help to place an emphasis on the delivery of optimum care. Songs, pictures and stories can enhance mood, memory and cognitive functioning as well as enable self-expression, empowerment and the reconstruction of identity. Music, dance, theatre and art can make eyes shine and souls soar. With no cure currently in sight, this means people living with dementia could potentially benefit in many ways from engagement and interaction with the arts.

Back on the Southbank, the appetite and energy to bring the arts and health together for improved outcomes and greater wellbeing was evident. Workshops fizzed with initiatives that are already making a difference to people’s lives, ranging from museum visits and dance sessions, to communal singing and therapeutic poetry. Moving testimonials and personal stories highlighted the unique alchemy of the arts, and their potential ability to transform unlike any other medicine. 

Delegates were tasked with building a robust and credible evidence base to prove the impact that the arts can have on health. The thinking was that once the effectiveness and value of the arts is evaluated and demonstrated more formally, pilots can become sustainable programmes, and arts interventions will hopefully be commissioned and prescribed more broadly and systematically. This would require artists and practitioners to maintain and strengthen their relationships with local authorities and the NHS, and find a common language to communicate with. At the same time the voices, needs and concerns of patients and health service users need to be central to these conversations. 

A crucial question is how the benefit of the arts, so often expressed most meaningfully through personal anecdote and qualitative insight, can be articulated in a health and care system required to scrutinise investment and quantify cost?  How can we measure the value of someone’s face lighting up? Or prove causation where access to the arts has made tangible financial savings across a care economy?

The worth of the arts can be stated simultaneously in monetary terms and as being priceless. Solutions will exist to these methodological challenges. And as the community music groups showed on the day, it is entirely possible to join together with others and sing from the same hymn sheet. 

by Emily Cousins

Added on: 17 March 2016

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