Fostering creativity in healthcare clients leads
to health and happiness


By Dylan Klempner
Artist-in-Residence, Adviser, University of Florida

I work as an artist in residence in a hospital. I wheel a cart filled with art supplies room to room and ask clients and their families if they would like to express themselves creatively. Many people in hospitals, particularly adults, forget that they are creative. Making and appreciating art can help remind them who they are outside the walls of their room.

The Arts In Medicine program at UF Health's Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida, began in the early 1990s. For two and a half decades, poets, musicians, dancers, and painters have been helping clients reconnect with their essential creativity. I started working for the program in 2010. I serve mainly cancer clients.

Artists like me are not therapists. I do not do art therapy, a term used by mental health professionals who use the arts in their practice to diagnose, treat, and provide psychotherapy. I facilitate writing and art making, primarily at the bedside and sometimes in workshops. I write poems with clients or guide them through another activity like drawing or painting.

Why bother? You might ask. What good is art in times of medical crisis?

My boss, Tina Mullen, directs the Arts in Medicine program at UF Health. She likes to say that art helps clients recover a sense of control. The hospital can be a cold, sterile place, where clients can lose a sense of their identity. To become well, they must leave behind their material positions, including the spaces that distinguish them from everyone else.

Art making gives clients the opportunity to distract themselves from pain and to acclimate themselves to the hospital environment. Journaling and visual arts can help them introspectively navigate their healing journey.

Art can even help clients develop healthier relationships with their caregivers. Through the arts, nurses and physicians can see their clients differently, uncovering aspects of their lives that may aid in the delivery of medical care and certainly encourages more humane treatment.

Not long ago, Dr. Brenda Butka joined me on my visits to clients in the hospital. She is a pulmonary specialist at Vanderbilt Hospital. She's also an artist and a poet.

Brenda likes to draw. She carries a stack of 3x5 cards in her pocket wherever she goes. While she doesn't draw clients, the act of making art has helped her learn to see differently. “We are trained to see patients as physiologic problems to be solved,” she said. Drawing has helped her learn that “people are hungry to be seen.” Brenda believes that clients feel unseen by their medical staff, and it adds up to the primary source of dissatisfaction in the client/physician relationship.

To recognize a client's humanity, the doctor will remember to ask about a daughter's graduation. She also recognizes that she has an important job to do as a doctor. “Everything I say would be total bullsh*t," she told me, "if I don’t have the science and the analytic ability to diagnose and treat."

Working together, clients can help their doctors treat them by writing and making art about how they feel. At the same time, the artwork itself is a meaningful distraction that can lower stress levels and boost immunity.

How can you incorporate art into your clients’ care?

The best advice for physical therapists and occupational therapists is to be creative themselves. Artists in residence are trained to facilitate art-making, and while you, as physical or occupational therapist or case manager, have a different job to do in the healthcare environment, you can also benefit by making art. Dr. Butka's story above is a good example.

In fact, the modern fields of Arts in Medicine and Arts in Healthcare started nearly 30 years ago when healthcare workers—doctors, nurses, and clinicians—recognized the benefits of creativity and art making in their own lives.

By expressing your creativity, PT and OT and case management professionals will benefit in two fundamental ways:

1) Reduce stress
2) See their clients' humanity

In 15 minutes per day or less, busy healthcare workers can use creativity to unwind and enrich your lives. My eBook, 31 Days to a More Creative You provides a month's worth of daily activities. Here are a few simple arts-based activities that physical therapists and occupational therapists can incorporate into their daily routines

1) Journaling: Research shows that people who write for 15 minutes per day about their stressors are healthier and find better ways to cope.

2) Smartphone photography: Go for a short walk on your lunch break or after work and photograph anything that captures your attention. The activity will help you see the landscape afresh.

3) Drawing: Follow Dr. Butka's example, and carry a pen and a stack of 3x5 cards in your pocket. Show your drawings (and photographs) to your clients and colleagues as a way of building community and exploring shared interests.

University of Florida Artist-in-Residence, and Faculty Adviser Dylan Klempner’s eBook, 31 Days to a More Creative You, is available to bring art to your clients’ daily routines and help make them happier and healthier.

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