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The arts in healthcare: the human touch?

Victoria Bates

Dr Victoria Bates

1 February 2017

The creative arts have long played a role in traditional healing. In Western medicine the arts have recently also been used increasingly to ‘(re)humanise’ the healthcare experience, often in response to concerns that the process has become more ‘medicalised’. Research at Bristol, supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, is contributing towards a better understanding of how and why the arts have been used in modern healthcare.

For example, visual art and music have been introduced into previously minimalist and sterile spaces to improve the quality of healthcare environments; and creative activities have been used therapeutically to boost patients’ physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Art in its various forms has also been used to teach medical students specific skills such as communication, observation and empathy.

A grant from the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute (EBI) allowed Dr Victoria Bates, Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Bristol, to visit archives in North America and Europe that document the role of art in healthcare and medical education over the last century. The scheme concerned supports recently appointed researchers at Bristol in applying for a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award.

As part of this initial research, Dr Bates identified resources and assessed their relevance as well as building networks in three interconnected areas:

  • history of art in hospitals;
  • history of arts therapies;
  • use of the arts in medical education.

In some locations, such as Penn State University and Washington DC, she was able to complete her studies; in others, for example the University of Texas, the UNESCO archive in Paris, and several archives in London, she discovered extensive materials requiring further research. As part of this project, she also set up a collaboration with Southmead Hospital – involving a walking tour of hospital arts/health and a hospital soundscape – and networked with Wellcome Trust archivists.

‘The arts have long been thought of as a way to connect with what it means to be human,’ says Dr Bates. ‘but we need a better historical understanding of ideas about their ‘(re)humanising’ effect and how they have developed in – and influenced – modern healthcare contexts.’

‘This has been a very generous, flexible and helpful scheme, which has helped me lay down the canvas for a more ambitious research project on the arts in healthcare. It has allowed me to identify resources worthy of further investigation, and to narrow down this large area into a more focused proposal that provides a strong base for funding applications.’

Further information

Learn more about Dr Bates’s research

You can read her open access article on the ‘human aspects of medical education’, published recently in Medical History, here.

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