By Sophia Luu, Founder of ‘on the mend’
You don’t need to be a healthcare professional to meaningfully contribute to the health and wellbeing sector. I recently founded ‘on the mend’, a design studio which raises awareness of current healthcare topics and improves health and wellbeing environments.
I’m often asked what contribution the arts can make to the healthcare sector. Design is essential to the sustainability of public health. Below are five reasons why:
1: Design as Health Education
‘on the mend’ debuted at the Tate Exchange with a pop-up called the ‘Ministry of Loneliness’. Loneliness is now a public health crisis. Theresa May appointed a Minister for Loneliness, following the Jo Cox reportin 2017. We wanted to bring loneliness into the public sphere.
We invited members of the public to write letters to strangers who might be experiencing loneliness. We then distributed these letters to healthcare spaces around the UK.
We had an overwhelmingly positive response with the 700 members of the public writing over 300 letters and openly talking about loneliness.
Good public education saves the NHS millions, as people are better aware of how and when to access healthcare. Good public engagement always involves design.
2: Improve access to Healthcare
A good healthcare environment gives a visual reflection of its services. If a space looks bland, intimidating and impersonal, then it will deter those who need it.
Tim Shaw and Niamh White cofounded Hospital Rooms, a charity which brings world class art to mental health hospitals. They believe that those suffering from mental illness deserve access to art as this will aid their recovery. They have successfully installed world-class art in mental health institutions all around the UK.
The Barefoot Artists do similar work with villages in developing countries, making murals in clinics to introduce villagers to staff. This makes villagers more likely to access clinics when they need health services.
We are working with London hospitals to redesign their waiting rooms. Waiting rooms are often hostile places and patients can be waiting for hours at a time in uncomfortable atmospheres. Visual design is a reflection of the care a patient experiences.
3: Art and design as expressing pain
Throughout history, people have turned to art to distract from the pains of recovery and illness: Frida Kahlo created many paintings about her experiences with polio and John Bellamy painted self portraits in hospital after a liver transplant.
Art provides a chance for non-sufferers to empathise with those experiencing a condition. James Gillray’s 1799 illustration The Gout is still used in medical textbooks today to describe the condition to junior doctors.
4: Input from the Wider Community
Jill Sonke and Jenny Baxley Lee, researchers at the University of Florida, wrote about the benefits of arts for health in communities (2016). They concluded that the arts are necessary in healthcare as they promote wellbeing and prevention which is essential in a stretched sector.
Many healthcare professional collaborate with artists and local communities in order to strengthen bonds and prevent social isolation. Tilary Primary school in Stockton-on-Tees has been collaborating with the Centre for Medical Humanities since 2000. The school’s intake consists of residents from the St Ann’s and Portrack estates, home to many refugees and asylum seekers.
The Tilary Parade encourages pupils and their families to make lanterns, which are then paraded between the estates. This has improved the children’s mental wellbeing and social development.
5: Health Literacy
Health literacy is the ability to receive health information and correctly adhere to treatment options. Many factors affect how an individual receives healthcare information, including literacy, cultural values and stigmas.
Some healthcare professionals use alternative methods to deliver information. The SPREAD theatre project in rural Rwanda teaches acting skills to coffee farmers, enabling them to perform skits to their communities about health. The communities are mainly illiterate, so the project gives them a better understanding of services available. This has resulted in a willingness to use family planning methods and improve hygiene.
The Names Project is a memorial quilt which tackles the emotional stigma associate with those suffering from AIDS. Each panel dedicated to someone who has lost their life to HIV. The quilt is an ongoing project and regularly tours US states.
Design enables us to give a platform to those who are under-represented by the healthcare system and directly address its inequalities. Through design, we can empower people to make more informed health and wellbeing choices.
Design for good: The future of sustainable healthcare?
‘Design for good’ as a field is gaining much popularity. As designers, it is our duty to think sustainably about social systems and use our work for social benefit.
Everyone will need access to health services at some point in their lives. As often as we are using these services, we need to reflect on the spaces that we receive them. Being mindful of this in our work makes us better designers, nicer citizens and builders of a healthier society.
Words Sophia Luu