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Arts and Medicine. Do It.

As a doctor who devoted professional life to integration of arts with medicine, I am often being asked, “Why do we need arts in medicine?” and, “Why would we spend money on arts instead of more important things?”

I can’t imagine the hospitals of the future without some form of the arts: visual, performing and literary — with their latent therapeutic powers fully activated. This is a bold statement. But, in a hospital settings art is not a commodity, it’s a necessity.

A hospital experience that includes the arts has profound impact on patients, families or caregivers. I am doing global work in developing countries and the effect with modest financial resources is the same if not bigger.

I no longer ask myself “why” or “where”; I am only focused on “how.”

Arts and medicine were always connected: Ars Medicinae, “The Art of Healing.” Due to the rapid development of technology in the last 100 years, our attention was drawn to the physical realm, and we lost our connection with the deep and powerful mystery of our consciousness. Re-integrating arts and medicine can restore that connection.

The power of our minds and our thoughts are biologically unexplainable in the full capacity they deserve. Our thoughts — positive or negative — are what trigger our brains to release the neurotransmitters that affect mood and health. Neuroimmunology teaches us that extensive bi-directional communication takes place between the nervous and the immune systems in both health and disease. In a simplified way: If ARTS affect emotions, and EMOTIONS affect health then arts affect HEALTH.

We don’t question the existence of hospitals, because they take care of our bodies. We don’t question the existence of museums, concert halls or arts in other forms, because that’s how we express our emotions and address the needs of our mind and spirit. If humans comprise “body, mind, and spirit,” then why do we question the coexistence of arts and medicine? Why would it be so unexpected to see well-curated art on the walls of a hospital or hear beautiful live music in the waiting areas?

The same artwork that you might see in a gallery or at the exhibition radiates completely different energy when you interact with it in a hospital. In places where people come to heal, different communication channels are open.

Art is sometimes most needed where you don’t expect to find it. Hospitals are places where joy and sorrow meet, where people quickly reset values, and where human existence is peeled off layers of superficiality. This is what makes it so pure and essential.

It is estimated there are more than 300,000 hospitals around the world. Most patients come with family members or friends. So for hundreds of millions of people the hospital becomes “home” for a period of time. What are we doing to address those quiet afternoon and evening hours, when families wait and the clock drags? Or to address the burnout of physicians, nurses and other caregivers who deserve the utmost admiration for their work?

Medicine and technology might change the time when we arrive at the end of our destinations, but arts will change our perception of that time. In sickness, when the passage of time becomes more palpable, time becomes a precious gift — and the way we perceive it becomes even more important.

Cleveland Clinic is an example of a hospital with audacious and visionary leaders who embrace the concept of arts and medicine and carry a strong belief that art can re-humanize medicine by bringing new energy to patients and their caregivers. The concepts of love and care don’t come from business plans; they come from the heart, and they can awaken a hospital’s soul.

In medicine, decisions are based on evidence. Many studies conducted around integration of arts and medicine have demonstrated improvements in health outcomes, quality of life and improved hospital experience. A Cleveland Clinic studyof 200 patients showed that music therapy decreased levels of anxiety, pain and depression and improved mood. The hospital’s visual art program affected patient and families’ overall hospital experience.

What are the mathematics of emotion? At what point do testimonials become evidence? Would I believe more in the benefits of arts and medicine if I read research about it, or if I hear the stories of patients, doctors and nurses about what hearing beautiful music in the hospital or seeing art has meant to them?

The humbling experience of bringing arts to those who suffer has changed my life forever. Humility, love and gratitude ARE words that belong to healthcare. And emotions are probably the only truth we can understand without any translation.

We are given the opportunity to show how mature we are as humans and as society by bringing two ends together — “arts” and “medicine” — and close the circle to open the portal of a new era in healthcare in which the true currency is empathy and emotions.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in conjunction with Spotlight: Health, a forum exploring the key issues of our time as they relate to medicine, population health and global health, as well as the relationship between health and other disciplines (part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, June 24-27, 2014). To see all the posts in the series, read here.