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  • Writer's pictureJoel Popadics

Can Art Promote Healing?

Can art promote healing?

A few years ago, the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro (UMCPP) purchased several of my watercolors for their new state-of-the-art hospital. They are displayed in the emergency room results-waiting area. Hopefully, my paintings will have a calming effect on those who are in a stressful situation.

My artwork is part of the hospital's "Art for Healing Program." I've posted below a fact sheet which includes their mission statement and criteria for choosing art. It's fascinating to read how representational nature art may help patients heal faster.

"WellFleet" - My original watercolor that's part of the Art for Healing Program at University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro

*How can art promote healing?

In ancient Greece, the chronically and terminally ill sought medical care at temples built in honor of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Often located on top of a hill, far away from the hustle and bustle of downtown, the temples provided sweeping views of the sea. Throughout history there are many examples of cultures harnessing the restorative properties of nature, and yet, it was not until 1984, that scientific data finally confirmed that nature promotes healing.

Environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich's landmark study, "View through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery," published in Science magazine in 1984 was the first study to prove that patients heal more rapidly when exposed to views of nature. Ulrich reviewed the medical records of patients recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. Patient rooms either overlooked a grove of trees or a brick wall. Those patients with tree views recovered almost a full day faster and required  fewer doses of pain medication than those patients who viewed the brick wall.

In subsequent research, Ulrich and colleagues measured the impact of different visual stimuli including nature art, abstract art, and a control condition with no art on patients recovering from heart surgery. Those patients exposed to a sunny, spatially open view of trees and water experienced the least anxiety and pain as compared to the other conditions (Ulrich, Lunden & Eltinge, 1993). This study demonstrates the importance of locating art such as nature photography in patient rooms, especially when an actual view of nature is unavailable.

Most research on the impact of art and healing has measured patients' preferences and the results parallel the research on nature. Patients' consistently respond positively to representational nature art. Even studies with children reveal a strong preference for nature art over abstract or cartoon-like images (Eisen 2006). Furthermore, researchers have identified particular characteristics of nature art most conducive to healing: calm or slowly moving water, verdant foliage, foreground spatial openness, park-like or Savannah-like properties, and birds or other unthreatening wildlife (Ulrich & Gilpin 2003). This penchant for views of nature, especially long views with meandering bodies of water, is partly a result of our genetic wiring. The entomologist E.O. Wilson describes this condition as biophilia: "the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes." In other words, humans have a partial genetic tendency to respond positively to nature, and exploiting this reaction even through art can speed the healing process.

Genetically we may be inclined to favor unobstructed views of nature, such as those seen from a mountain peak, not only because from this vantage point we can more easily spot predators, but also because we have a better understanding of our surroundings and relationship in space. A maze, even an entertaining garden maze can become quite stressful because narrow, high walls and curving pathways severely limit your vision and thus sense of control. Hospitals often feel like mazes, especially older facilities where multiple building additions have led to a sprawling campus. A wayfinding system that is not intuitive can become quite costly. The annual cost of a flawed wayfinding system at a major regional 604-bed tertiary care hospital was calculated to be more than $220,000 per year. Much of this was the hidden cost of direction-giving by people other than information staff (Zimring, 1990). Research has shown that people rely on cues from their environment to form cognitive maps that help them navigate to and from their destination. Appropriately scaled, memorable pieces of art, strategically located at key corridor intersections, become critical landmarks, especially if interior finishes remain fairly consistent throughout the facility.

Art programs that extend beyond major public spaces and into areas such as waiting and examination rooms have positive implications on patient satisfaction levels and overall perceptions of care. The 2010 Press Ganey Pulse Report found that "patients who spent more time in the waiting area reported higher levels of satisfaction if they perceived the waiting room was comfortable and pleasant." Art contributes to the overall ambience of an interior and often serves as a focal point. Artwork as well as other interior design features receive sustained attention from patrons as they try and gauge quality. In the article "Clueing in Customers" professors of marketing, Leonard Berry and Neeli Bendapudi advise health organizations to more carefully consider the impact of these seemingly insignificant details because as the patron "turns detective, looking for evidence of competence, caring, and integrity" their perceptions of quality rely on the aspects of the medical visit that they can understand.

Notably art adds more than a decorative aesthetic to healthcare facilities. In the cited research noted above, art plays a role in restorative health and healing, shorter length of stays, less anxiety and pain, improved wayfinding and greater levels of patient satisfaction and overall perceptions of care. These are all important evidence-based features that UMCPP has focused on in the development of a facility that is intentionally designed to improve health, organizational and economic outcomes. To this end the Arts for Healing program at the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro is organized as follows:

"Out for a Walk, Edgartown"

Mission Statement The mission of the Art for Healing Program at Princeton HealthCare System is to create an environment that enhances the wellbeing of patients, staff, physicians, volunteers and visitors. Our vision is to position Princeton HealthCare System at the forefront of the use of the arts in healthcare.

Criteria for Choosing Art ●Help UMCPP to become a destination for viewing ●Reduce stress for all who experience it ●Create a sense of community and familiarity, without excluding those who are unfamiliar with or new to the central New Jersey area ●Reflect UMCPP's commitment to diversity and inclusion ●Reflect UMCPP's respect for each individual ●Have a high likelihood of positively affecting those who view it by comforting, inspiring, empowering, and/or enlivening them ●Be of high quality ●Be appropriate for the site where it appears ●Be durable and easy to maintain

*Reprinted with permission from UMCPP

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