A dose of the arts a day keeps the doctor away

The health sector is a rapidly changing field. As the NHS seeks to battle its way through what can feel like one insurmountable challenge after the next, often on multiple fronts, baffling and unfathomable medical advances force us to reassess what is within the realms of possibility. New drugs that enhance our lives, fight disease, and allow us to defy age itself have become common place, as have state of the art facilities to keep us well and the use of data to monitor every minutiae of our recovery.

But with such considerable pressure being felt across the health and social care sectors, and, despite notable funding increases, many local authorities still feeling the pinch, we shouldn’t be afraid to go back to the basics. Or rather, discover new basics from which to press on. The arts is a perfect example.

Any medical practitioner prescribing pottery classes to a patient ten years ago would have been laughed out of the hospital. Now, it’s quite a different story.

Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that points towards arts-based approaches as a means of helping people stay well, recover fast, manage long term conditions and experience a better quality of life. This is a strategy already employed across the globe, particularly in Scandinavia and Australia, and as we quite rightly see an increasing focus in the domestic debate on prevention rather than treatment, it is surely one that appears more and more transferable to Britain.

In fact, a social return of between £4 and £11 has been calculated for every £1 invested in arts on prescription. This could follow the example of one of a number of trailblazers, like Artlift in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire where, after six months of working with an artist on things like poetry, ceramics and painting, patients with a variety of conditions – from chronic pain, stroke recovery or anxiety – had 37% less demand for GP appointments, with their need for hospital admissions dropping by 27%.

Supporting those with mental ill health and caring for our growing elderly population are two of the biggest tests facing every authority, yet increasingly music and art are being shown to aid young people and new mothers cope with depression, as well as help older people live fulfilling lives with dementia. Indeed, it has been proven that keeping elderly residents socially active can have as positive an impact on their health as giving up smoking.

In moving from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to the now Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), Matt Hancock is following the exact same trajectory as his predecessor, Jeremy Hunt. Whilst the latter will be remembered for his bitter tussle with junior doctors, his banging of the seven day NHS drum, and if history proves favourable, for securing a significant cash injection for the NHS on its 70th birthday, the changing political environment and swelling wealth of evidence gives the new man in charge at DHSC an opportunity to be a social care revolutionary.

With the anticipated (and much delayed) social care green paper expected this autumn, now is the time to grasp the nettle. The Government would be foolish not to learn from international examples and exploit this cross-department knowhow to initiate real, sustained change. The time for conventional thinking has been and gone; what is needed now is a creative approach to health.

As a part of a broader, holistic approach to social care, a course of arts based treatment will see the sector’s prognosis brighten considerably.



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