Careful fine art selection stimulates patient healing

January 1, 2007

Experts say fine art collections in hospitals can go beyond their decorative role and stimulate healing of body, mind, and spirit. The proper selection and placement of art can reduce patient stress, create a sense of security for patients, promote a bond between patient and care giver, and perpetuate an image of excellence for the facility, according to Kathy Hathorn, president of American Art Resources in Houston.

Experts say fine art collections in hospitals can go beyond their decorative role and stimulate healing of body, mind, and spirit. The proper selection and placement of art can reduce patient stress, create a sense of security for patients, promote a bond between patient and care giver, and perpetuate an image of excellence for the facility, according to Kathy Hathorn, president of American Art Resources in Houston.

"A hospital is a microcosm, a tiny city where its citizens are grappling with a myriad of conditions," Hathorn said.

Serene nature views, rather than abstract art or no art at all, help heart patients heal faster, according to Roger Ulrich, Ph.D., a leading authority on the effects of art on patient outcomes.

It may be necessary to place artwork on the ceiling for optimal patient viewing during recovery, Hathorn said.

Cancer patients often experience nausea and dizziness. Therefore, imagery in radiation treatment areas should be clear, still, and calm. It should also contain leafy trees and flowers in bloom, rather than dreary winter landscapes. Researchers have found that cancer patients prefer landscapes with distant horizon lines to those with a close perspective.

Hathorn theorizes that humans are genetically hard-wired to understand that the horizon is a marker, a symbol that everything is right in the world.

The proper art in the imaging department can ease patient anxiety. A patient waiting for an x-ray of a twisted ankle might feel comforted by a painting of a mountain stream gently swirling through sun-dappled rocks. The same painting would not work as well for a woman with a full bladder waiting for an ultrasound exam.

"In this case, it is no longer therapeutic. In fact, it might have a negative effect," Hathorn said.

Artwork that depicts food, such as a still life of fruit, could be distracting to imaging patients who have been fasting. MRI and CT imaging generally requires that patients be supine. Art for these procedure rooms benefits the patient best when it is placed on the ceiling or is large enough to fill the patient's view while on the procedure table.

Beautiful images of general interest to women of all ages, such as flowers, can serve as effective distraction for women undergoing mammography. But positioning for a mammography exam, one breast at a time, creates very restricted and shifting lines of view. Whenever possible, facilities should use two pictures, one for each view, Hathorn said.

"With so much riding on the outcome of the art planning and selection process, art for healthcare cannot afford to be an afterthought," she said.