Picasso & Nurse Ratched

By Shannon McQuade

Artistic and creative expression improve health outcomes.

by Shannon McQuade

As I watched MichaelMoore’s “Sicko,” my expression morphed from dumbfounded and frustrated intosomething that may cause permanent wrinkles. Critics say his portrayal ofhealth care around the globe is one-sided. From the inside, I can say he is notfar off. Interactions with Medicare and HMOs provoke screams from the officenext to mine, but I have gotten used to it. We have all just gotten used to it.


We will not be able toignore the screaming much longer, however, as our aging Boomer populationbegins having strokes and broken hips. The crushing demand on our health caresystem over the next several decades will leave us gasping for air.


When I was four years old,my biggest problem was gluing the corners of my construction paper shape andtrying not to get it stuck to the floor. What I did not know then was that Iwas participating in a popular movement in the United States and abroad thatuses the arts in the health care environment and health delivery systems.Research mounts demonstrating that artistic and creative expression improvehealth outcomes. In one study, patients who participated in making art while inthe hospital had a shorter recovery time. Another study revealed that patientswho make art were found to have increased pain tolerance, reducing the need forsedating narcotics. More studies reveal that making art increases circulation,improving mobility in patients with stiff muscles and arthritis. Not just forpatients, studies also reveal that arts-based health care delivery increasesthe retention of clinical staff by reducing burnout.


Integrating art and thehealth care system is not an easy endeavor; it requires planning andcollaboration. The Society for the Arts in Health Care has taken on this effortat a national level, while the Arts in Caring Council is forging on in Utah.Members of the two nonprofit organizations include health care providers,administrators, artists, architects, counselors, and community advocates, andthey collaborate to design programs for various health care populations. Theyshare ideas and successes, conduct research, and establish practices foreffective arts-based health care delivery. This is not art class for whoevermight be interested. It means a nurse holding a clipboard painted in bright,cheery colors or an intern making clay animals with a patient on dialysis.


I wonder—if Picasso hadcollaborated with Nurse Ratched, would she have been nicer? I don’t know, butthe idea of using art as therapy is not new. It was “officially” discovered inthe early 20th century, by psychiatrists who became interested in the artworkcreated by their patients with mental illness. Freud and Jung encouragedpatients to draw when verbal expression eluded them. At around the same time,educators were “discovering” that children’s art expressions reflected theirdevelopmental, emotional, and cognitive growth. Art therapy became a regulateddiscipline in the 1960s, and since then art therapists have worked with avariety of patient populations.


The arts in health caremovement is about the comprehensive integration of art into every aspect of thehealth care system, rather than hit and miss art therapy programs. It aims toalleviate the fears of many who feel intimidated by art through programs thatintroduce art in user-friendly ways. And, it is about the art of seeingpatients as more than just a set of body parts that need repair. It is aboutdoctors taking time to really be present for those whose lives are in theirhands.


Shannon McQuade is aclinical social worker and the community development director for HomeCaregivers Home Health.  She isalso the project and training coordinator for the Arts in Caring Council.C





This article was originally published on April 1, 2008.