Art for health’s sake

NHS England’s Director for Experience, Participation and Equalities looks at how artists, musicians and museum staff are spreading health and wellbeing in the NHS:

Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently spoke about the central role culture and creative practice can play in sustaining health and wellbeing.

That made me think about some of the things I have seen recently in my visits around the NHS.

On a trip to Newcastle, I heard about an initiative to connect hospitals with museums and galleries. An object handling box had been created with articles reminiscent of life on Tyneside over the last 50 years, like photographs, badges, adverts and common workplace and household items. The aim was for speech and language therapists and other clinical staff to use these objects to spark conversations with people living with dementia and others recovering from strokes.

I met a group of stroke survivors, who told me that the museum objects had sparked their curiosity and led to conversations which had improved their confidence and given them a renewed sense of self.

Clinical staff said that the objects had helped them learn more about patients as individuals and given them creative ideas on how to improve aspects of their care.

In London I met the visual artist Emma Barnard. One of her projects involves taking photographs of patients (with their consent) before they attend a consultation and asking them to draw on the image after they come out.

I was struck by how enthusiastic patients were about this – all agreed to take part and some clearly felt more comfortable expressing their feelings visually rather than in words. The images themselves confirm how difficult it can be to gauge how a person is feeling from their appearance alone and the images are now being used in medical education to help students learn to listen to understand and not just to make diagnoses.

In Haywards Heath, I saw a drama group being used in training of clinical staff. This can be an excellent way to learn from groups of people who are often excluded. A number of people with learning disabilities, for example, have formed drama groups to share their experiences of using NHS care, such as their anxieties about visiting a doctor and their fears of being patronised.

On this occasion, actors were representing the experiences of a woman who had been diagnosed with dementia. The central message was that staff had to learn to come into her world rather than try and drag her into theirs. Practically, this gave staff tips on how to encourage early risers back to bed and why someone might prefer a shower to a bath.

As Matt Hancock said: “Access to the arts and social activities improves people’s mental and physical health. It makes us happier and healthier.”

It’s good to see artists, musicians, drama companies and museum workers coming into the NHS to spread health, wellbeing and understanding among some of those who need it most.

Dr Neil Churchill

Neil is Director for People and Communities at NHS England, having joined the NHS after a 25-year career in the voluntary sector. His work includes understanding people’s experiences of the NHS, involving people and communities in decision-making and leading change to improve the quality and equality of care. He has a particular focus on strengthening partnerships with unpaid carers, volunteers and the voluntary sector.

Neil has previously been a non-executive director for the NHS in the South of England, is a member of the Strategy Board for the Beryl Institute and Chair of Care for the Carers in East Sussex. He is himself an unpaid carer. Neil tweets as @neilgchurchill


  1. Felicity Newbold says:

    This project sounds so exciting, how can I get in involved as a writer. I believe that creative writing could play a huge part in patient health and wellbeing

  2. steph Iaconianni says:

    Loved this Neil, I’m really interested in your work with FFT and all patient experience. Can we have a chat at some point? Would love for you to come to our Trust LTHTR Steph. PS how do I contact you off Twitter???

  3. Celia Manson says:

    Thank you. Good to read this.
    As a nurse with a background in palliative care and pain, this all resonates.