For my 2022 book, “Creating Care,” I conducted a multi-site ethnographic study of creative expressive activities in U.S. hospitals. I interviewed more than 70 people, including those who facilitate, participate in and support art-making in hospitals. Some were licensed mental health professionals who were professionally prepared for such work, such as art therapists, music therapists and poetry therapists. Others were artists who simply chose to work in hospitals.
I wanted to understand why art-making is happening more frequently in hospitals, what benefits it provides and how these programs function alongside traditional medical care.
Medical care in the U.S. can be dehumanizing for both the people giving and receiving care. Medical students have historically been trained to practice detached concern and to prioritize efficiency and quantity of care.
Studies show that this has harmful effects for providers. It affects both how they cope with their own emotions and how they practice medicine. As a result, some health care providers believe that the current medical standard does not result in the best care for patients.
People experiencing hospitalization have shared with me that they often don’t feel seen for who they are when they enter the hospital setting. One gentleman stated that he felt literally stripped of his social identity when he was asked to don the anonymous hospital gown.
But when artists enter the hospital room, they recognize patients as whole people, apart from their diagnosis. Artists and therapists who facilitate creative expressive activities in hospitals have shared with me that one of their major goals is to acknowledge people’s humanity and agency.
For example, when they approach a patient’s room, they ask permission before coming in – and they are often the only person in a hospital that patients can say no to. They structure arts activities to provide multiple opportunities for practical and creative choices – such as when to start, what colors or materials to use and how to hold the tools.
Art-making activities in hospitals have many documented functions including supporting biomedical care, reaching specific clinical goals and helping patients pass the time. But my research shows that art-making also provides an important opportunity to engage with the unknown.
In medicine, the focus is typically on imaging and other testing to reach a diagnosis and a course of treatment. But many patients find themselves somewhere in between – awaiting a hoped-for outcome or grappling with how long they might be in the hospital or living with their illness.
It takes courage to complete cancer treatment as well as to confront the ultimate unknown – death and what comes after. As Cion shared with me when I interviewed him in 2015, he thinks about the fact that confronting a blank page is also an exercise in building courage.