Picture of health

Harnessing the power of art to boost wellbeing and health at work.

The blue-green sea-scape bursts with life off the wall it’s pinned to. Yet, the mesmeric painting by Norfolk-based artist Alice Scrutton (pictured below) is not destined to be seen in an art gallery, but a hospital ward. Shown as part of an exhibition for Creativity and Wellbeing Week (13-17 June) and taken from the collection of Paintings in Hospitals, Safety Management attended the show to meet its director, Ben Pearce.

Paintings in Hospitals is a charity that lends museum-quality, contemporary art to hospitals, GP surgeries and other healthcare settings to improve health and to create care spaces that encourage and enrich people. It has 4,100 artworks in its collection, from contemporary and well-known artists including Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Ian Davenport.

Hospitals are able to choose from loan schemes suitable to patient group needs and tastes; for example, art for older patients, young people, or those with autism. Each request for a loan of art begins with a discussion of the hospital’s needs and is followed up at the end of the two- year period of loan. “We monitor all of our activities to ensure that they are making a real difference to people’s lives,” says Ben.

Small beginnings

Paintings in Hospitals may be an established charity now, partnered with over 180 health and social care organisations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but it began on a small scale springing from one man’s unique vision. “Sheridan Russell, our founder, was an almoner (similar to a social worker now) and a celebrated, partially-deaf cellist,” explains Ben.

Sheridan had a varied career – he had worked as a musician in silent cinemas and as a director for an animal charity in Italy – but in 1959 he found himself working in the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. Noticing the drab posters on the walls and faded reprints, he decided to see if exhibiting original, quality artwork would help improve wellbeing among the patients and staff. “Paintings in Hospitals was one of the first organisations dedicated to using art to improve people’s health and wellbeing,” says Ben. “Sheridan understood the positive effect that music and art could have on a person’s wellbeing.”

Bristol – a case study

The charity’s work today has huge relevance for staff wellbeing as well as patients, as studies show. Hospitals are challenging places to work, with stressful targets to meet and sick and distressed people to make better. When the Bedminster Practice in Bristol borrowed artworks from Paintings in Hospitals’ loan collection for its move to a modern building, medical researchers monitored the impacts on staff and patients.

The study, published in 2008 in the British Journal of General Practice, found the patients’ perception of patient–doctor communication had improved, there was a reduction in anxiety, and increases in patient and staff satisfaction. Staff expressed their pleasure in the new surroundings in feedback included in the study. A female GP writes: “My new consulting room is spacious, light, pleasantly decorated and looks attractive and non-clinical. This helps me to feel more relaxed and enhances my mood.”

Ben summarises: “Our findings have included measurable reductions in levels of anxiety and stress, and increases in pride and morale felt by both patients and care staff. These outcomes would have an obvious effect on the patient and staff experience and on staff retention.”

String quartets and landscapes

Paintings in Hospitals is not alone in its thinking about the role of art and creativity on wellbeing. It stretches back. “The ideas behind our charitable purposes are hardly new. The ancient Greeks believed that being in contact with art, such as statues and mosaics, could heal both the body and the mind,” says Ben. But there has also been a sizeable body of new research into this link in recent years, he points out.

When Chelsea and Westminster Hospital opened in 1993, it pioneered a new approach by incorporating works of art at drawing-board stage to complement innovative architectural design. A three year study (1999 to 2002) followed, exploring impacts of music and art on patients and staff.

Pictures were specially selected from Paintings in Hospitals collection, including landscapes, marine pictures, portraits, figurative and abstract works, and were changed weekly for 24 weeks. Live music – actual classical string quartets, harpists, guitarists and pianists – was also played inside a treatment room or in its vicinity. It was a breakthrough study, not only in its boldly creative theory testing, but it was the first to provide quantitative analysis of art’s health effects, which had previously been anecdotal.

The study found 75% of clinicians and 60% of nurses said the art and music had eased their stress levels. The environment was also said to contribute to staff’s decision to remain in their current job – for 46% of clinicians and 53% of nurses.

Move forward to today and art’s role in health has grown to be accepted on a wider scale. At the time of going to press, an all-party parliamentary group two-year-inquiry into arts, health and wellbeing was due to be published on 19 July. It is to argue that the arts can help meet major challenges facing health and social care – ageing, long-term conditions and mental health.

Public Health England also produced new guidance this year for practitioners to measure impacts of arts and health and wellbeing projects in healthcare settings. It is aimed at providing the framework for arts to be included in the commissioning of health and social care services – another sign of support.

Mental health

In a hospital setting our mental health is tested, as this is often when people feel and think at their lowest. Yet, art, whether hung on the walls or through creative activities with patients, which the charity also runs, can help with a surprising range of tough issues, says Ben: “Studies have shown that having art within a primary care site actually reduces patient length of stay, it reduces levels of depression, and it can even mean that they need fewer painkillers.”

Feedback on the charity website shows how paintings can help with communication too, with the art starting as a talking point between nurse and patient or as a distraction for the patient from their concerns. “Art in health sites is proven to help improve communication between patients and healthcare professionals, helping to break down barriers to even the most difficult of subjects,” says Ben.

NHS – new challenges

Sheridan Russell created his charity in a different time – the NHS was just 11 years young and being a nurse was an aspirational profession for many young women. Yet in July this year, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) reported that for the first time in recent history more midwives and nurses are leaving than are joining.

British nurses are the ones leaving in the largest numbers, it says, citing heavy workloads and disillusionment with the quality of care provided to patients. In such an atmosphere, and one of decreased funding, does Ben believe paintings can make any difference? “I do, we have a massive role to play in linking things together – the biomedical and the social – the artistic and the scientific. At a time of political upheaval, and when our care services are under such strain, we can be there to make a real difference to people’s morale, to their stress and anxiety, to give them a little hope for the future,” he says.

Paintings in Hospitals and other art and wellbeing initiatives that have followed in its wake demonstrate it’s important not to overlook the small details that contribute to wellbeing and health. We are intricate creatures and moods and spirits are hard-wired in our systems, which also promote recovery and healing. It is something that we can all relate to, whether at our desk looking at a view out of the window and noticing a burst of productivity ignite, or in the hospital, where its need is shown more starkly.

As Ben says: “Poorly-produced art or faded prints can actually make people feel worse than a blank wall, on the other hand, it is clear that museum-quality art will make health and social care sites more stimulating, comforting and supportive spaces. It makes people feel valued.”

Arts for health: Inquiry report here 

Paintings in hospitals website: www.paintingsinhospitals.org.uk