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Can Art—And Artie Shaw—Reduce Health Costs and Improve Patient Satisfaction?

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, January 20, 2010

My father doesn't say much these days. His memory has been fading for years and now, at age 92, he struggles to eat.

Square dancing with his wife, playing clarinet, and re-arranging swing numbers for a small orchestra are pleasures no longer possible. It seemed all joy had gone from his life. But after reading how melody might re-open the senses for people like my dad, I thought I'd give music a try.

Last month, I bought him an iPod Shuffle and loaded up all his Big Band sounds. Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and of course Benny Goodman. As soon as the buds found his ears, we saw his mood change gear. A knowing grin, even a little chuckle, broadened his face as he hummed the notes and let his hands and fingers dance the rhythm in the air.

"Ar-tie Shaw," he said, his head gently bobbing with the notes. "Gosh. I haven't heard that for years."

I relayed that story to Blair Sadler, a senior fellow with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge, MA, and former CEO of San Diego Rady Children's Hospital. He says he knows what I was talking about.

He believes that art—and especially music—are sleeping giants with their unrealized potential to improve health quality when they are united with many home and institutional care settings.

Doctors and hospitals are increasingly realizing that exposure to music and art isn't just a cosmetically pleasing, cute trinket in a healthcare setting, it can actually improve patient satisfaction and reduce costs, which are both very high attention getters for the C-suite and the boardroom, Sadler says.

In their book released last month, "Transforming Healthcare Experience Through the Arts," Sadler and interior designer Annette Ridenour chronicle dozens of examples of how health settings around the world setting examples. They incorporate music and other forms of art into the treatment process and improve patient care along the way.

To the skeptics, there are some surprises indeed.

At Jewish Home of San Francisco, half of seniors with dementia were taking anti-depressant medications and more than 80% were using wheelchairs or walkers.

But after a program in which the residents were coached to compose songs about such topics as Purim, there was a "quite dramatic improvement in depressive symptoms such as isolation, tearfulness, and poor appetite . . . Better appetite leads to better nutrition and ability to fight off infection. Better energy leads to more exercise tolerance, and then to improved strength, balance, and mobility," Sadler and Ridenour wrote.

At Tallahassee Memorial Hospital in Florida, one program allowed children anxiously awaiting a scary test to listen to live music played by a volunteer. The result was that caregivers were able to avoid pharmaceutical sedation by an anesthesiologist "98% of the time for echocardiograms and 88% for CT scans, with no need at all for sedation of children under the age of six."

It also saved the hospital $567 per CT procedure, "put three hours of nursing time back on the floors, reduced the medications needed by the young patients, cut down on overnight stays" and could save an estimated $2.25 billion nationally just for this procedure, the authors wrote.

That in itself improves care because it avoids risks associated with anesthesia.

And at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, RI, the "Art While You Wait" program facilitators approach nervous, fearful patients–some of whom have pain–and invite them to participate in arts and crafts projects. The children paint puppet heads on bags or construct dioramas, projects that they insist they take with them when their names are called.

By then, the children are calmer, and emergency teams say their departments run more smoothly and efficiently.

"We know waiting in the emergency room is an Achilles' heel in patient satisfaction, but here's something we can do about it without hiring three more people on staff," Sadler says.

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