Incorporating the arts in healthcare is not new. Thomas Sydenham, the 17th century English physician, said, "The arrival of a good clown exercises more beneficial influence upon the health of a town than 20 asses laden with drugs."

In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration sponsored mural projects in hospitals throughout the United States, and in the 1950s, New York City launched its United Hospital Fund, which placed thousands of paintings in hospitals and sponsored trips for mental health patients to see theatrical productions. 

Today, it’s rare to walk into a hospital without seeing artwork on the walls or sculpture in the lobby. And hospital administrators are now beginning to understand that the built environment plays a unique role in decreasing stress for patients and families.

But for the most part, much of the art placed in hospitals is little more than poster art, dressed up with a nice frame and expressing little or no connection to the site, patient experience, or psychological effect on patients.  

However well intentioned, these efforts mostly fall short of their potential to create real impact on patients. So art in hospitals mostly becomes an afterthought, quite secondary, and only convenient if there is a little money left over to help spruce up the environment.

What’s missing in this equation is an understanding about how successful hospital arts programs promote what is referred to as a "trigger effect," which helps the body and mind connect.

Research from the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University and others have maintained (and proved) that viewing certain types of art can effectively reduce anxiety and stress, and that appropriate art can reduce pain and lower blood pressure.

Is it a surprise that dementia patients start reconnecting with memories when shown pictures of familiar scenes and events? Or that children are more receptive to intervention in an MRI, allowing them to remain calm so they won't need to be rescanned multiple times.  

With pressure building in the United States to provide a more effective healthcare delivery system with better outcomes at lower costs, it makes sense that we would look seriously at the power of art so we can make incremental changes to improve outcomes and reduce costs.

Can technology fill the void? Is it possible to create a “trigger effect” with Facebook and the Internet? Maybe, but my hunch is that it does little to make us disconnect our app-focused brains versus having a more reflective dialogue with the arts, allowing us to see what’s important about our lives in the face of health challenges.

Traditional medical intervention helps the body but does little for the mind and the human psyche. It is art that allows us to connect the human spirit to the body, and if that relationship can be appropriately affected, that will have a profound impact on health. 

Isn’t it about time that we started treating the whole patient?