Boston Hospitals’ Creative Approach to Healing

Art as a form of healing has been a formal practice at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Cancer Center and Boston Children’s Hospital since the late 1990’s but it seems that, until recently, the care hasn’t been a well-known supplement to treatment. It may be due to current ongoing research of the benefits of art, increased funding for program development, or simply that people are looking for alternative and additional methods to cope and heal.

“The clinical team is coming around to it more and more because there is more evidence. Patients and families are becoming better consumers and they want the whole package…they want to feel better physically and see their course of treatment. They need another way to cope, and sometimes you just need something for your soul, heart, and mind. Art and music do just that.” -Miranda Day, Creative Arts Program Administration Manager at Boston Children’s Hospital

The Integrative Therapies program at MGH and Boston Children’s Creative Arts program have expanded to include different areas of alternative therapeutic treatment, including art therapy in both. Sticking to the base of expressive therapies, neither program requires previous knowledge or practice of art, music, etc. They have been designed to serve their patients either bedside or in small groups when appropriate, and welcome sessions with family members and close friends.

Holly Chartrand, the Patient Coordinator of the Integrative Therapies program and a Clinical Musical Therapist at MGH, has seen the program grow over the years. With the perspective of a coordinator and therapist she understands the program’s work from both sides. She said MGH began its program with massage therapy and has grown to include music therapy, acupuncture, art therapy, tai chi and qigong. Chartrand is part of the 17-person integrative therapies team that works not only with patients going through oncology care, but psychiatric as well.

“It’s been very popular and we often have a waitlist,” she said, “Our patients are seen over time…rarely do we see a patient just once.” Patients are given a treatment plan that incorporates the integrative therapies. The team works with clinicians to diagnose and determine “continuity with care if it’s clinically indicated to be seen over time.” For example, “an acupuncturist with a patient has a treatment plan based on their needs and diagnosis,” she said, “then, they will make a clinical judgement and the patient will be seen for successions.”

Integrative therapies at MGH are provided by trained professionals and are not only available as individual sessions, but as workshops and support groups as well. A monthly calendar is released with a wide range of supportive care services. “It’s a great program that’s well-accessed by patients,” said Chartrand,”[the programs] can make a positive impact on their experience and it’s really great that we have it to offer to patients while they’re ill and being treated.

The Creative Arts program is philanthropically funded and rely on donations. “The services are complimentary and unfortunately never guaranteed due to limited resources,” said Chartrand. However, patients still take full advantage of the program’s drop-in classes and on-call therapies.  Chartrand expressed her interest in the program expanding to other departments of the hospital and eventually to other Boston-area hospitals. “We’re ready to grow to other areas, but it really comes down to funding,” said Chartrand.

Miranda Day, the Creative Arts Program Administration Manager at Boston Children’s, has been with the hospital for over ten years and has also seen the it become “a more cohesive program.” At Boston Children’s, the Creative Arts team works to develop “engaging, innovative, and uplifting experiences” for children and their families going through care. The Creative Arts Program has many different experiences to choose from including: artists-in-residence, music therapy, art cart, and Seacrest studios. Although a little difficult to determine, Day believes that music therapy has been the most popular as it transcends age and ability, making it more relatable to families and kids. The hospital has also partnered with the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), and the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp; each providing a variety of healing community/individual activities and art education for the patients. “There is a beauty in having variety because people are varied and unique gives them the opportunity to be unique and do what they love well rounded program,” said Day.

Robin DeSantis, the Artful Healing Program Coordinator at the Museum of Fine Arts who has also worked as an art educator with patients, believes that the partnerships between hospitals provide great programs. “We recognize that art and art making can be healing ad that the process of making art helps alleviate anxiety,” she said, “learning about different works of art in different parts of the world can help a child’s development in various ways. . .it serves as a sort of respite from whatever treatment they may be going through in a hospital setting.”

The programs at Boston Children’s have been quite popular, with 33,000 patients and families participating just last year. Day said that according to a quality improvement study done two years ago, the results have been “extremely positive.” “Both patients and parents reported that their pain level went down,” she said. Anxiety levels were reported to have decreased substantially as well from care.

“Music therapy, like psychology or social work, can be part of their health care,” said Day. “They get referrals from the medical team, or are self-referred, so it is more of a clinical approach.” When they are self-reffered it is mostly based on “knowing what the kids are interested in. . .sometimes the families are good advocates for themselves.” Like MGH, Boston Children’s is not limited to one area of patient care. The Creative Arts program goes through inpatient care, including the intensive care unit.

Day said that she would love the program to expand to other areas of the hospital and Boston Children’s (Longwood) has already implemented creative arts into their satellite locations in Jamaica Plain, Waltham, Peabody, Norwood, Lexington as they’re growing in staff and abilities. “I see this being more of a traditional part of care instead of an extra in healthcare as the years go by,” she said. “People are always seeking a way to cope, whether it’s through reading, exercise, or art,” said Day, “Especially when you lose abilities, art is a great way to release stress to think about what youre going through in a different way.” She believes that art has such a healing element that it only makes sense to be part of healthcare.

Art as a form of healing is not unique to Boston and is constantly expanding to other areas of the United States. The American Art Therapy Association has detailed information regarding implementation, outcomes, and applications of art therapy in clinical settings, including successful program listings from hospitals all over the country.