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HealthBeat

HealthBeat: Conference focus is art and health care

Can watching the circus make you healthier? What about puppets?

These are just two examples of the arts in health care that Gary Christenson has seen. Christenson, chief medical officer of Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota and the past president of the Global Alliance for Arts and Health, will be in town next week to talk to the Arts in Healthcare conference, a professional development event for New Hampshire health care providers and artists.

Turns out those lovely, soothing watercolor paintings on your doctor’s office walls are just one component of the way art can be used to make health care work better for everyone, Christenson said.

On his campus, for example, they held the Cirque De-Stress earlier this semester, where circus artists – jugglers and balancers – drew crowds to a location where he and other health professionals provided information about juggling the demands of college life and balancing health, academics and a social life.

“The main reason people came, as indicated in surveys, was because they were intrigued, they liked circuses and wanted to have a good time. Lower in the responses was a desire to learn about mental health,” he said. “But as they were exiting, they said they were in fact leaving with a new strategy for balancing stress in their lives. The arts provide a new way to drawing attention that email blasts and posters can’t do.”

Public health professionals are also employing the arts in different ways all around the world. Puppets in particular have been helpful abroad, teaching about tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in India and Africa, he said.

Arts education has also been shown to increase the skills and quality of life of health care providers, he said. One study showed that medical students training in art observation make more astute clinical observations. A similar study showed nurses trained in music appreciation are more likely to notice abnormal breathing or bowel noises.

Additionally, the arts can help in prescriptive ways. The power of art and music therapy in mental health is well known, but did you know Parkinson’s disease patients experience better balance and mobility if they take dance lessons? The tango is incredibly popular in those cases, Christenson said.

And back to those watercolors on the office walls.

“Hospitals are by nature frightening, and they can even be unintentionally abusive: You’ve got people sticking you, poking you, waking you up. The arts provide a way of grounding people and giving them a sense of control,” Christenson said.

“Some hospitals have begun programs with arts carts. They can be opportunities for people to participate in the arts, but there are others where a staff member walks around with framed art work and you choose what is displayed in your room. Instead of having to look at the scene someone else chose, you choose your own view for the duration of your stay.”

In these times of increasing pressure on health care costs, is it worth it to buy, store and cart around a dozen different paintings for patients to choose from? That particular study didn’t look at costs or savings, but another one did, Christenson said.

When a music therapist was brought to work with children being subjected to CAT scans, EKGs and other scans, the children were able to stay more calm for longer periods of time. The study authors extrapolated that deploying trained music therapists nationwide could save $2.25 billion dollars across the system annually.

Locally, the goal of the conference is more immediate. There is no network for health care providers or officials to connect with artists, said Alice Kinsler, manager of therapeutic arts and activities services at Concord Hospital, which is sponsoring the event, along with the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.

“We hope, out of this conference we might be able to form a formal or informal network for people in New Hampshire who are interested in this work, maybe an online network with a group that holds occasional meetings,” she said. “Knowing who you can talk to is really the first step.”

The Arts in Healthcare Conference is being held at Concord Hospital on Friday and Saturday. Each day of the conference is designed for a specific audience: Friday is a symposium for health care leaders and practitioners; Saturday is a workshop for artists and arts organizations. Christenson will address both groups at the opening of their events. For more information or to register for a spot at the event, visit nh.gov/nharts or concordhospital.org

Sharing information

The New Hampshire Department of Insurance is considered a national leader in health care costs information, since a 2003 state law allowed the department to collect information about hospital charges and insurance payments, and compile the information at NHHealthCost.org.

Now, the federal government is trying to get all states to compile and present similar information, and is offering grants of up to $5 million through a grant program started in the Affordable Care Act.

Tyler Brannen, a health policy analyst at the department, said last week the program will still apply for the federal funding, so the website could expand. “We could do an awful lot more than what we have, add more procedures include quality information or prescription drug costs,” he said. “We want to make sure first that we don’t create such an infrastructure it’s difficult to maintain.”

New Hampshire could be eligible to receive as much as $1.5 million to use over the next 18 to 24 months.

A letter of intent, the first step of the application process, is due June 17 and the grant winners will be announced in the fall, Brannen said.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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