Why Your Doctor May Be Prescribing Art Classes in the Future

Casey Lesser
Sep 19, 2018 12:00PM

Imagine that the next time you visit your doctor, they prescribe a new creative endeavor, like a community painting group or a dance workshop, with the aim of improving your physical or mental health. This scenario appears to be approaching reality in the U.K., where a recent study found that 66 percent of doctors believe the arts have a positive role to play in the prevention of illness.

The study, commissioned by London-based arts charity and social enterprise Aesop, specifically found that among 1,002 general practitioners (GPs), two-thirds agreed that “public engagement with the arts can make a significant contribution to the prevention agenda.” While it will take much more than their positive attitudes to affect change, the findings are encouraging.

Tim Joss, chief executive and founder of Aesop, notes that this support among doctors is promising—particularly in light of the July 2017 report commissioned by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing that stated “the United Kingdom is still very far from realising more than a small modicum of the potential contribution of the arts to health and wellbeing.”

“In a lot of conversations I’ve had within the health system, people think of the arts as something that’s nice to have, an extra; it’s a fluff,” Joss reflected. “And what comes after that study is that they think it’s got real potential.” So is there a future where the arts become integrated into healthcare offerings?

While it’s a long way off, healthcare players in the U.K. are taking steps in this direction. Earlier this month, at an NHS conference in Manchester, England, British secretary of health Matt Hancock advocated for more “social prescribing.” This involves GPs determining that there’s not an appropriate medical solution for their patient, such as surgery, medication, or therapy, and referring them instead to a link worker—someone who is familiar with the local community and its offerings—to recommend social and recreational activities that match their interests, including the arts.

“The evidence increasingly shows that activities like social clubs, art, ballroom dancing and gardening can be more effective than medicines for some people, and I want to see an increase in that sort of social prescribing,” Hancock said. And while social prescribing is gaining steam in the U.K., numerous GPs and health organizations are looking for other impactful ways to harness the healing power of the arts.

Aesop’s “Dance to Health” participants and members of East London Dance’s older people’s dance group, Leap of Faith, at the Southbank Centre, London. Photo by Helen Murray. Courtesy of Aesop.


Dr. Laura Marshall-Andrews, who has been running Brighton Health and Wellbeing Centre with Dr. Gary Toyne for the past five years, developed the Healing Expressive and Restorative Arts Project (HERA) for her patients. Funded by the Arts Council, the program offers regular workshops and activities in the visual, literary, and performance arts.

“People go to their doctor because they don’t know where else to go; they trust their doctor and they’ll just do what the doctor says,” Marshall-Andrews explained. “I believe that it’s a much more sustainable, profound treatment if you prescribe someone a group or a practice or a skill that they can take with them.”

She noted that her center’s arts programming, such as a popular singing group on Saturday mornings, has been helpful for a wide range of patients—those with depression, chronic illnesses, or mood and movement disorders, as well as those who are grieving. “A lot of the patients are elderly and that really helps to combat isolation and loneliness,” she added. “We’ve always known one of the primary things is a sense of community and also creativity, creating something, participating in something which is enjoyable and has purpose.”

When asked about the impetus behind the greater interest for arts in health today, Marshall-Andrews suggested that there’s a general understanding among GPs that patients’ needs are not being met and NHS resources are lacking. “We’ve had to try and look outside [of NHS] and that everyone’s under pressure,” she said, noting that patients are living much longer, in more isolated environments, and with less community support. “A lot of social change has been medicalized,” she explained, “and we’re starting to realize that and try and do something about it.”

Aesop is also grappling with this tension between patient needs and NHS resources. The charity, which broadly sees itself as a bridge-builder between arts organizations and the health system, is seeking to develop sustainable, cost-effective programs that can be funded by the NHS and implemented nationally. “The basic thing we’re trying to do is to create arts programs which are effective and cost-effective, so the health system will actually pay for them because of they are saving the health system money,” Joss said. Its first such program, called Dance to Health, is geared toward preventing the elderly from sustaining falls.

It costs the NHS £2.3 billion per year to treat older patients who have experienced debilitating falls, Joss learned. He found that the health system’s response to this problem was a set of boring, repetitive exercises. “And—surprise, surprise—they have a problem getting older people to do them,” Joss said. “We asked ourselves: ‘Can we smuggle those evidence-based exercises into creative, sociable dance activity?’” That’s just what Aesop has done with Dance to Health, which it has begun to implement in collaboration with major dance companies like the Birmingham Royal Ballet and National Dance Company Wales.

Joss added that he sees great potential in terms of engaging artists who are keen to contribute to lead arts and health programs. But it’s not that easy, he explained, given that much of the production of the art world is project-based. “The health system wants national, sustainable services so there might be a brilliant art project, but when a GP hears about it, their natural first question is going to be: ‘Is it available in my area?’ And I’m afraid to say there is not a single arts program yet that is available to all GPs across England,” Joss explained. The aim is to fill this void with replicable programs like Dance to Health, but Joss explained that Aesop is also aiming to serve as an accelerator, to collaborate with organizations to grow their existing arts and health initiatives.

“Certainly, in Britain, we’re proud of our art scene and our creative industry—we’re seen as a world player,” Joss reflected, “but when you look at the arts’ contribution to health, we’ve got a long way to go.”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.