Thomas Walshaw is Communications & Development Manager for Paintings in Hospitals. Thomas joins our 60 Years, 60 Voices series to address some misconceptions and tell us that art has always been part of health...

As part of the Paintings in Hospitals team, I am often overjoyed by the number of carers and care organisations that embrace our mission and our art - and I'm stunned by those who still dismiss such a well-evidenced health intervention.

When I joined Paintings in Hospitals in 2013, I was surprised to discover that to many people outside the charity ‘arts in health’ sounded like a new-fangled thing. Most seemed to view it with suspicion: was it a gimmick or a passing trend?

In reality, a quick peek at the history books shows us that art was inseparably linked to health for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks valued art’s contribution to their early hospitals (asclepieia) with its power to heal both people’s mind and body. In fact, arts and health were inextricably connected right up until the Victorian era, when art was unceremoniously demoted to a simple tool for illustrating textbooks and capturing the likenesses of eminent physicians.

Patients sleeping in the temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus. Oil painting by Ernest Board. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Patients sleeping in the temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus. Oil painting by Ernest Board. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

In 1859, in her seminal Notes on Nursing, Florence Nightingale shared advice on hygiene, ventilation, heating, nutrition, noise/light levels and bedding to help people to care properly for others. Groundbreaking in her time of extreme poverty, poor sanitation and shockingly high infection and mortality rates, we now take Florence’s advice for granted.

Well, most of it. In the same pages of this first handbook for nurses, Florence also wrote about the profound benefits to patient health of bringing art into the care environment.

The effect in sickness of beautiful objects is hardly at all appreciated… People say the effect is only on the mind. It is no such thing. The effect is on the body, too... Variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients are actual means of recovery.

You would expect then, 160 years later, after Florence’s relentless campaigning transformed public health and healthcare, that every hospital would now be brimming with art. But, while there are some wonderful examples, many care sites still favour Victorian clinical bleakness - easy to wipe clean but also devoid of all other benefits to patients, carers and visitors.

The lady with the lamp was also a pioneering statistician producing groundbreaking work in data visualisation to transform healthcare. Image credit: 'One of the wards in the hospital at Scutari'. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

At first, it was argued that there needed to be more clinical evidence that art could provide a tangible improvement to health outcomes. We know now that Florence’s advice on sanitation, while still life-saving for millions, was based on incorrect theory since debunked by biochemistry. Modern health science demands that the unknown complexities of the ways in which art influences our physical and mental health are somehow distilled down to digestible statistics and infographics – ironically, something Florence Nightingale also pioneered.

Diligently, my colleagues in the arts in health sector, past and present, got to work to provide this quantitative evidence. Every month now, there seems to be a new study or report published that clearly demonstrates the beneficial effects of art on our health and wellbeing. So, to celebrate the NHS 70th anniversary last year, I decided to write 70 articles in 70 days about all the ways in which art has been proven to impact our physical, mental and social health. It’s impossible for me to list all of the points here, so these are just the top five concerning visual art:

  • Art relieves anxiety, stress and depression: Multiple studies have found this to be true for patients. Studies have also found that art reduces stress and improves morale for care staff.
  • Art speeds up patient recovery: A key study in 2003 found that length of stay for patients on a trauma ward was one whole day shorter on average when art was part of their care.
  • Art helps to manage pain: Several studies have found that patient's pain levels are decreased by the presence of art, with one study finding that patients required 70mg less painkilling medication per day when art was present in the care environment.
  • Art can create better, healthier doctors and nurses: In a 2017 study, researchers found significant improvement in observational skills among medical students who took part in an art course. A study last year confirmed that medical students with more exposure to art have significantly better empathy and emotional intelligence. Vitally, they are also far more resilient to stress and less likely to develop symptoms of burnout.
  • Art can help save the NHS money: A large number of patients have been found to visit primary healthcare for problems that require a social solution, not a medical one. These visits cost the equivalent of 3,750 GPs’ salaries every year. According to a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing in 2017, an ‘arts-on-prescription’ pilot project has demonstrated a 37% decrease in GP visits and a 27% reduction in hospital admissions. That equates to a saving of £216 per patient.

Fireworks by Sarah Borrett. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection. © courtesy of the artist, Paintings in Hospitals

Fireworks by Sarah Borrett. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection. © the artist, Paintings in Hospitals

Paintings in Hospitals currently works with almost 180 care organisations across the country. For 60 years we have strived to make it easy and affordable for all care organisations and their service users to benefit from art. We offer our own museum-quality artworks to be borrowed and we facilitate workshops for hundreds of patients and carers to get involved. We insure, transport and install artworks securely and in line with infection control. Our work makes a difference to the lives of approximately two million people every year, yet we still receive no direct support from the Government and can only continue to deliver our services thanks to grants and donations. 

Arts in health is not about replacing a dialyser with a Dalí. It is about supplementing and supporting existing care: preventing illness, speeding recovery and improving staff wellbeing. Art can ease some of the tremendous pressure currently placed on our care services and, by returning art to the heart of health and social care, we will be better equipped to overcome major challenges in the future. Art is not a luxury when it comes to our health, it is, and always has been, integral.

Find out more about how patients and carers can benefit from working with Paintings in Hospitals now...

Celebrating 60 years of Paintings in Hospitals in 2019

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Thomas Walshaw is Communications & Development Manager for Paintings in Hospitals. He was previously a freelance communications consultant and marketing manager for several non-profit arts organisations. Thomas studied photography at Leeds Beckett University and has 10 years of experience promoting cultural democracy projects. Follow Thomas on Twitter (@thomaswalshaw).