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ON THE SCENE: Using the arts to foster health

September 21, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Last week when Hurricane Florence was increasing from a category 1 to a category 4 behemoth barreling toward the Carolinas, with its landfall and direction once on shore unknown, I was in Washington, D.C., for a summit that included approximately 30 leaders in public health, medical care and medical education.

Participants came from across the United States. Public health officials represented cities like Boston to states like Rhode Island and Florida. Medical centers ranged from Houston Methodist to the Cleveland Clinic, and agencies varied from the National Institutes of Health and the Association of Child Life Professionals to the Veterans Administration and the Indian Health Services.

They were asked to articulate the significant challenges they face within six collectively determined priority areas: Caring for Caregivers, Clinical Services, Community Health, Well-Being, Healthcare Environment and Health Sciences Education - challenges that wake them up in the middle of the night. Then, in collaboration with about 20 specialists who use the arts in health care, their task was to determine where the arts may be used to address these challenges, setting priorities for a three-year strategic plan.

Article Photos

Public health summit participants in Washington, D.C.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Medical and arts leaders may seem like an odd pairing, but increasingly the ability of the arts to foster communication, distract patients from pain, motivate behavior change, create uplifting environments and restore people's spirits is becoming valued by the health community, particularly as these outcomes are being buttressed by a growing body of research coupled with testimonials from satisfied patients and their families.

Some of the priority challenges identified by health leaders may seem obvious, such as the growing level of burnout by caregivers; professionals such as doctors and nurses, paraprofessionals, people who provide a mix of essential health services in a variety of settings; and volunteers, such as the spouse, parent or child of a person living with a chronic health disease. How severe are the levels of burnout? Approximately 70 percent of nurses and 50 percent of physicians are dealing with burnout. Consider this: 43 percent of newly licensed nurses who work in hospitals leave their jobs within three years, 35 percent resign after two years, and approximately 18 percent work just one year. The average overall cost for a hospital to replace these nurses is $5 million to $8 million per year. When you add in the cost of replacing doctors, paraprofessionals and others, along with the loss of memory and the time it takes to recruit and train replacements, the total impact is considerable.

Another big health care challenge is siloing, different divisions within an institution or industry not talking with each other, much less with stakeholders such as educators, government and economic leaders, and other aspects of society. We here in the Adirondacks know well the damage that such societal divisions can cause. During the confrontational heyday between environmentalists, local government and local business, one Adirondack Park Agency board member had her barn burned. Now the people representing these different social sectors meet annually through the Common Ground Alliance, resulting in a wide array of mutually beneficial initiatives.

An example of the value of using the arts to bridge divides was the creation of the Wild Center. Leaders in Tupper Lake sought to improve their economy through lobbying the state to build a prison as a way of creating jobs, an initiative brought to a standstill through an aggressive counter-advocacy effort led by environmentalists. The anger and frustration were at a near boiling point until Betsy Lowe, then working for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, pitched the idea of creating an Adirondack Natural History Museum and recruited people from both sides of the prison project to assist in bringing the vision into a reality. Since then, Tupper Lake has experienced increased tourism and investment in the community and a dogged effort to develop a resort community around the former Big Tupper Ski Area.

The organizers of the summit in Washington, D.C., the National Organization for Arts in Health, supported by the Westreich Foundation, Kaiser Permanente Foundation, Houston Methodist Center for the Performing Arts Medicine, Penn State College of Medicine and Georgetown Lombardi, sought to create a forum similar to the Common Ground Alliance but in health care.

As of this writing, their draft plan has not been released. That will happen initially in early October at NOAH's national conference in Austin. But enthusiasm for the process and initial recommendations was very high.

One recommendation was that NOAH develop accreditation for professional artists, arts administrators and arts consultants who work in health care, a process that they have already undertaken with the creation of a code of ethics that will be released this fall.

"I felt the summit was a wonderful opportunity to bring together like-minded spirits centered around raising public awareness of one another's resources, a value for the arts and desire to create healthy communities," said Jennifer Lipsey, CEO, Association of Child Life Professionals. "I loved it. I hope NOAH will do it again."

"I was pleased to be here," said Lisa Howley, senior director of strategic initiatives and partnerships for the Association of American Medical Colleges. "I felt it was a great event. I liked the open and transparent dialogue, the constructive ideas and discussing what NOAH can bring to broaden community health and health education."

A local example of the healing benefits of the arts was Barbara Rand Ryan's recent publication of "A Path to Healing: Journeying Forward After Loss," a book of 77 poems that she wrote to give voice to her anger, pain, sorrow and questions following her husband Dennis's death by suicide. Hiking in the Adirondacks, being with friends and family, and writing through her grief helped her regain her emotional footing and develop a path to healing.

An opportunity for local medical, public health and arts representatives could be to organize their own summit to explore ways that the arts can be used in our region to reduce suicide, address the opiate crisis, improve the quality of life for older adults and people living with chronic health conditions, and address burnout within our health care community.

There is already a variety of ad hoc initiatives to build on, ranging from Creative Healing Connections retreats for women living with cancer and women in the military to St. Joseph's Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center using the arts for veterans in their care, to the Lake Placid/Wilmington Connecting Youth and Communities' banner and murals aimed at helping kids make healthy choices.

Two aspirins and some Mozart, anyone?



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