News Opinion

What can culture do for health and social care?

Darren Henley, Chief Executive, Arts Council England

The success of medical advances and public health initiatives create new dilemmas; while we are living longer than before, that longevity is building pressure on our health and social care systems.

Many more of us are experiencing the chronic conditions that come with age.  We need to be imaginative in our response to the situation and draw on a wider range of resources. One way would be to make more use of participatory arts and cultural programmes, which have shown to deliver proven benefits for those in our communities who need care.

Creative activity can make us feel better, promote good health and contribute to higher life satisfaction. Government research has shown that people who participate in cultural activities are almost 60% more likely to report good health compared to those who do not.[1]

This is particularly true for older people in social care settings; arts and culture can help alleviate the depression, loneliness and anxiety associated with ageing. They can also have a positive impact on those living with Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Our poll of older people aged 65+ has shown that 76% say arts and culture is important in making them feel happy.[2]

The arts can also have a positive impact on children and young people in care and those living with a disability. Engagement in structured art and culture improves cognitive abilities and can have transformative effects on mental health conditions and self-esteem.

For example, Arts and Minds, a Cambridge based organisation runs art courses for those aged 0-25 years and a 12-week programme for people of all ages experiencing depression and anxiety. 76% of participants reported an increase in wellbeing.[3]

The evidence given in a Parliamentary report on The Arts for Health and Wellbeing demonstrated that giving more GPs access to arts-based social prescribing, as an alternative to drugs, can help relieve pressure from the NHS and the social care system.[4]

Arts-based interventions can strengthen prevention, reduce demand for medication and clinicians’ time, shorten hospital stays, delay the need for residential care and reduce costs. Research from the Government’s CASE programme indicates that social prescribing could be saving the NHS £544m per annum.[5]

A number of primary care providers are already engaged in social prescribing of the arts. In Gloucestershire, there are now thirteen arts organisations involved in the delivery of arts on prescription. The charity Artlift, for example, run participatory arts sessions in GP surgeries and community spaces; their programme resulted in a 37% drop in GP visits and a 39% reduction in hospital admissions. Each session costs £33.48 per patient and delivered a cost saving of £471 per patient.[6]

In his recent speech at the Kings Fund, the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock highlighted the benefits of arts in health and called for a move towards a more person-centric care that focuses as much on prevention as cure.

His commitment to new funding will offer the opportunity to roll out more programmes across the country and help us understand what types of interventions work best in social care settings.

I am excited about the health and wellbeing activity that arts organisations are leading across the country. I know that there is potential to do much more through the development of stronger partnerships that bring together arts practitioners with public health and social care professionals.

Arts-based programmes cannot and should not replace clinical interventions when these are required; but with an ageing population and increasing pressures on the NHS and social care services, we must not ignore what art and culture can do for us.




Edel Harris





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