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ON THE SCENE: Art in healthcare in Germany

February 28, 2011
I went to Berlin last week at the encouragement of Dr. Arnt Gerstenberger, a dentist, who suffered serve burns on his right hand and, while going through seven operations and consequential levels of pain he had heretofore thought not possible, and while at times bored out of his mind in his white and bare-walled patient room, remembered articles I had sent him about a Cleveland burn clinic that used music to reduce the experience of pain, hospital walls decorated with art, and musicians, painters and poets that visited patients in their room engaging them in arts activities. He decided he didn’t want other patients to have to go what he went through. He decided it was time to import some of these American ideas to Germany.

I first met Dr. Gerstenberger at a family reunion held in Gerstenberg, Germany, the ancestral home of my mother’s family shortly after her death back in 2004. Indeed it was going through her affects that I found an invitation that had recently arrived to attend the first such international gathering, then possible because the Berlin Wall and had come down and East and West Germany had been united. At the second such reunion, held in Lake Placid and hosted by the Golden Arrow, Dr. Gerstenberger articulated a dream of international exchanges between the German and American branches of the family. It was there during a show and tell of different careers that he learned about my work, then at Dartmouth Medical School and Medical Center, in using the arts to foster healing.

In the United States there is a near balance between professional artists and arts therapists working in hospitals. 79 percent of nearly 3,000 hospitals that have arts programming have an arts coordinator. Slightly more than half of these hospitals partner with outside cultural institutions. In the U.S. artists are working in ER (aka ED) waiting rooms, musicians perform in lobbies, carts filled with arts supplies are taken to patient rooms even at Walter Reed, our nation’s foremost Army hospital, and programs are developed not just for patients, but increasingly for the hospital staff to reduce their anxieties and, of consequence, enhance patient safety.

One of the outcomes of Dr Gerstenberger and my visits with the leadership of two of the most respected hospitals in Germany, where I gave Grand Rounds presentations, and faculty and students at the two leading arts academies in Berlin, was that we learned that various arts activities do take place in hospitals in Germany, but that the practitioners are isolated and do not know about the work of others and that the scale, range and scope of activities is relatively modest in comparison to how the arts are being used in the United States.

Artists, arts therapists and hospital healthcare and administration staff were amazed to learn about arts programming in healing in the United States. At the same time, I witnessed one truly transformative program at the DRK Westend Hospital that was innovative by any standard. Westend does not have an arts collection, yet its walls are filled with art. Instead of purchasing art, so it may “Collect dust on the walls over the decades” says the art