Photo of NOAH's board at their annual conference in Boston. Photo courtesy of NOAH.

Arts in health is an integral component to health and wellbeing.  

That’s the vision of the National Organization of Arts in Health (NOAH)

Odds are you’ve experienced a health center over your lifetime whether it be for a routine doctor’s visit or for something more significant in the hospital. Do you remember coming across art while in the hospital? The goal of NOAH is that you do.

Studies have proven that arts support health. Art affects your physical, mental and social well-being. So naturally, art weaves itself into the healing agenda of health centers. Healthcare is not just the eradication of disease with prescriptions and procedures. Throughout the years we’ve learned that it is important to treat the whole person.

Furthermore, hospitals not only serve the patients and families. Hospitals house a workforce—doctors, nurses, staff. Art creates normalcy, beauty, vitality, and solace for all of these audiences. 

We had the opportunity to interview Claire de Boer, President of NOAH, to learn more about the organization and the importance of arts in healthcare. Claire is also the director of The Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine and Center Stage Arts in Health at the College of Medicine and its affiliated hospital, the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Why was NOAH founded?

Uniting the field strengthens the field. Art in health is a niche field with a lot of ethics, and a lot of people in the country are not talking to each other—we are constantly reinventing the wheel. So it’s important for an organization like NOAH to be the bridge between art and hospitals, and unite programs.

NOAH was founded in 2016 but its roots go back to 1989 with the first convocation of arts administrators in Durham, North Carolina. This group was founded as the Society of Healthcare Arts Administrators, which later became the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, then the Global Alliance for Arts in Health, then finally the Arts and Health Alliance before disbanding in 2014. 

Why is the work of NOAH important?

We know through research and experience that the arts are an integral component to health, and we are committed to shaping a reality where that fact is accepted fully, and incorporated into medical treatment, medical education, prevention, and public health and wellbeing.

And, arts in health is a bridge field. We need to bridge between the arts and the scientific and medical. In order for the arts to exist within hospital settings we need to include evidence-based research and a scientific method. NOAH helps promote this approach. 

What are the benefits of having art in healing environments?

The arts have a unique way of addressing emotional, social and behavioral areas that are hard to address in other ways. You are wide open vulnerable when you are a patient or family member.

Sure, there is medicine to treat ailments, a nice cafeteria and a clean environment in the hospital. But, art is a way to say, “I see you and care about you.” 

Art in the healthcare setting is not just for the patients and families. It’s for staff, healthcare providers and medical students. Certain art programs build community among physicians and bring satisfaction that might show higher scores on the Mayo Index. Art helps reduce burnout.

Art is for everybody. Let’s think about those coming into hospitals. Many do not have a relationship with art. Art can be an intimidating intellectual experience. We get them comfortable with art. They learn how to respond emotionally to paintings and music without expectations; they can purely feel. Sometimes it’s just a question of access. If we touch them with art, they can feel the power of art and get comfortable with the creative process. 

Photo credit: Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

How can artists interested in arts and health get involved?

My advice is to look around at your healthcare facilities and see if they have programs and artists in health training. My guess is that about half of hospitals have arts in health. I wouldn’t recommend cold calling a hospital that doesn’t have a program. Training is really important. 

Artists can head to NOAH’s website and see regional networks and participate in our national conference. This year’s conference is in Long Beach, California in September. Part of our job at NOAH is to unite programs in encouraging and teaching—to make arts in health programs more available. And we are doing that by coming out with a core curriculum. 

What are your goals for NOAH during your presidency?

We established an impressive list of goals at our 2019 conference in Boston. Diversity, equity and inclusion are very important, so we are creating accessibility through a regional program. We are also creating a core curriculum. And, our goal is to further the research agenda—all in an effort to secure greater funding. 

How did you get started in arts and health?

I play the flute and was part of a swim group. 

Curious, go on. 

My swim buddy was a hospital administrator and asked if I could bring my quartet to a hospital and play. It occurred to me that day, “I can't believe this isn’t done regularly.” It's great not only for staff, family and patients, but great for the musicians too. I volunteered & started up a program for them. I grew the program through grants and philanthropy.

And can you tell us about your own program at Penn State Health? 

I am the director of the Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine, which supports education and research aimed at promoting a humane, compassionate and patient-centered approach to medicine. One initiative is a research group that is dedicated to developing more robust evaluation systems for our programs. We want to measure the impact of art on health and wellbeing. And, as we acquire hospitals, our question is how can we bring this approach to other hospitals. 

How about sharing a few projects that have struck you over the years?

There is a lot that delights me at Penn State Health. 

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with a second-year medical student who finished a global health trip to an African country. He decided to take photographs of the patients. One of his portraits is blank. That’s because it is of a homosexual man, which cannot be transparent in this country. The portraits are part of his solo exhibition in our employee art gallery. 

Speaking of portraits, one of our employees is open about being a suicide attempt survivor and decided to take up portraits of other people affected by suicide. It’s such a dark and depressing topic, but this employee goes to beautiful places, the favorite places of the survivors, and makes a gorgeous portrayal. It’s such a creative and meaningful application of the art. 

And, I’ve spoken to bridges before. We commissioned a painter to create a set of mural panels on a corridor that connects the College of Medicine and Hospital. The artist interviewed people informally and asked what they do and what makes their work important. His canvas panels reflect those interviews. People see themselves in the artwork; it tells the story of our workplace. 

Art creates community and a sense of pride.

Learn more about the power of arts in medicine with Artwork Archive's Guide to Arts in Healing