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With the groundswell of empirical evidence regarding the arts’ positive impact on both physical and mental wellbeing, why shouldn’t arts be as readily available to the public as any medication?

UNSW Conjoint Professor Chris Poulos and Associate Professor Roslyn Poulos are championing the concept of Arts on Prescription in Australia, and will speak about it at the Annual International Arts and Health Conference at the Art Gallery of NSW next week.

Chris is head of Research and Aged Care Clinical Services for Hammond Care, one of Australia’s leading providers of aged care, as well as a conjoint professor in the Faculty of Medicine and a consultant physician in rehabilitation medicine.

Ros is a public health physician and a researcher in the field of ageing and health.

Arts on Prescription is based on a UK model, whereby health professionals, including GPs, write prescriptions for their patients to participate in the arts.

“It is always done in association with traditional health care, but it recognises that there is more to achieving health and wellness,” Chris said.

“A prescription is a good reinforcer for the person that their health care professional sees involvement in the arts as an important thing, alongside their traditional health care, in helping them achieve greater wellbeing.”

The program – which culminated with exhibitions in April - targeted people over 65 experiencing a range of health and wellbeing challenges, rather than a single issue.

These included frailty, declining physical function, anxiety, depression, mild cognitive impairment, bereavement, social isolation and/or carer burden.

Groups of six to eight people worked for two hours per week for 10 weeks in the arts area of their choice, with a professional and specially trained artist, using professional-standard materials.

Classes covered visual arts (oil and watercolour, drawing and printmaking), dance and creative movement, music and photography, with many participants signing up for more than one.


Artist Annette Innis running a watercolour workshop for members of the Arts on Prescription community. Photo: Supplied

The artistic area was not chosen for the participant because engagement was the primary goal, and it was felt that many forms of arts activity would achieve health and wellness targets such as socialisation, movement and creativity.

“The thing with any form of activity is motivation is always key,” Chris said.

Ros agreed, saying, “the beautiful thing about the arts is they can be incredibly flexible and can be modified to whatever individual health problems people may be experiencing”.

Data from 139 participants in the program was analysed and followed up with interviews and focus groups to explore people’s experiences anecdotally.

Ros said there were significant improvements reported from pre- to post-program and statistically significant increases in self-perceived creativity and frequency of creative activity.

“People said the program had given them a sense of purpose and direction,” she said. “It had also given them a new talent to explore.

“Doing art in a group also gave them something in common, so there was a lovely connection with each other.”


Musician Pete McDonald teaching a participant to play piano during an Arts on Prescription music program. Photo: Supplied

The success of the program is clear from the comments of participants, such as Dorothy.

“This program has brought me back to life again,” she said.

“It has helped me get over my grief and loneliness. Socially, it was marvellous. It has released me to be me.”

Ahmed, 83, said: “The Arts on Prescription program and artists gave me power to try new things and the drive to keep going.”

Both Chris and Ros believe it is important to make Arts on Prescription a viable and sustainable ongoing program embraced by Australian GPs, with referrals accepted from a range of health care practitioners, including social workers, nurses, pastoral care workers and aged care assessment teams.

The 9th Annual International Arts and Health Conference The Art of Good Health and Wellbeing will be held from 30 October – 1 November.