How the arts and humanities will shape the future of healthcare

Group of people holding hand together in the park

By placing the experience of the individual at their heart, arts and humanities approaches will help to shape the future of healthcare.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the formation of the NHS, a milestone that is charged with significance as we reflect on the story of the service to-date, and look to the future.

From the pioneering advances in healthcare and the lasting dedication of NHS staff to the legacy of COVID-19, it is a story that has touched on all of our lives and retains a uniquely prominent place in our national psyche.

In marking the anniversary we can also take stock of the pressures and challenges facing the NHS and our wider healthcare system as we look to its future.

Our ageing population, the harnessing of technology for new approaches, health inequality and a need to understand the cultural and community contexts of health and social care are all challenges where arts and humanities can contribute to providing solutions.

Whether it’s ethics and law to combat inequalities, design to bring new products to market or history to learn from the past, the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded (AHRC) research will play an important role in improving health, wellbeing and social care across the UK.

Mobilising community assets

A fundamental goal of AHRC-funded research in this area is to tackle inequalities in health and social care, securing better wellbeing and health equity for people across the UK.

The importance of rooting healthcare solutions in communities is recognised in the NHS and in the increasing role of social prescribing, where individuals’ health and wellbeing needs are addressed through connections to activities, groups and services in their community.

This approach has informed a diverse mix of projects, from engaging with cultural heritage such as museums to reduce social isolation to the wellbeing benefits of art and nature.

And this approach has informed our Mobilising Community Assets to Tackle Health Inequalities programme.

The programme seeks to find ways to integrate community assets such as gyms, libraries and parks that are known to have positive health effects into healthcare systems across the whole of the UK.

These projects speak to the importance of designing solutions and approaches with lived experience in mind.

Community assets already play an important role in supporting health and wellbeing and tackling health inequalities, using evidence-based and community-led approaches.

The Mobilising Community Assets programme aims to support scale up and better integration of these assets within health and care systems in the UK.

Designing solutions

Design is a core arts and humanities discipline that is at the heart of improving healthcare solutions.

In line with the National Institute for Health and Social Care, and the Medical Research Council’s complex intervention framework, it allows interventions to be effective but also adaptable and reproducible.

There are myriad examples of design’s importance.

These range from the use of linguistic analysis and animation to support men with eating disorders, to improving orthopaedic surgery services through design-engineering approaches and designing comforters used by people with dementia.

For example, AHRC-funded researchers at the Glasgow School of Art found evidence linking house ventilation design to antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which sees bacteria, viruses and parasites become resistant to treatment over time.

The knowledge generated through the project resulted in advice on ventilation and building regulation which was provided to the UK government and the World Health Organization to help combat the spread of AMR.

Our creative industries, an economic success story for the UK, also point to possible solutions to pressing health challenges.

Video games developers are being funded by Dundee-based InGAME, part of AHRC’s Creative Industries Clusters Programme, and Nesta to build virtual neighbourhoods that will test ways to increase the availability of healthy food.

Two concept games are being developed using real-time 3D game engines and taking inspiration from popular games such as Minecraft and SimCity.

They are being designed to provide insights about how food environments – including supermarkets and takeaways – shape people’s opportunity to be healthy, and inform policymakers as they design ways to narrow health inequalities.

Virtual reality technologies are also being tested as a method of supporting drug-free pain relief on the labour ward.

Devices developed by Rescape Innovation, which received funding and support from the Clwstwr creative industries cluster, were tested at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff.

The virtual reality (VR) headsets allowed patients to choose from a selection of calming experiences aided by biofeedback sensors which determined how relaxed they were and altered the VR environment accordingly.

Rescape Innovation is continuing to develop maternity devices, and exploring new potential in biofeedback.

As a pervasive and flexible technology, virtual reality illustrates how the latest developments can be harnessed to meet the needs of a given healthcare challenge.

Engaging with diverse audiences

In continuing the story of the NHS it is also important to record the experiences of its staff over the 75 years of its existence, allowing us to celebrate and learn from the past.

To mark this year’s anniversary we are supporting a range of projects that engage with diverse audiences and capture insights to inform the development of the future of health and social care.

For example, ten public engagement projects will see researchers collaborating with communities to explore their lived experience of health and social care.

They include a project working in communities in Greenwich and Lewisham exploring how African-Caribbean folk stories and songs from the Windrush generation can be used to support mental health and wellbeing in the community.

And another project in Kent will work with young people, new mothers, older adults and migrants to see how mental health services can be designed from the ‘bottom up’, informing potential improvements to the service through a range of creative outputs.

Telling the story of the NHS

For the last six months award-winning poet and Manchester Metropolitan University lecturer, Dr Kim Moore, has been based in Trafford General Hospital, the first NHS hospital to be opened, as a writer-in-residence.

Untold Stories has focused on supporting staff in a range of roles across the hospital to tell their own stories of working in the NHS and produce their own creative writing.

This year also marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush, an event which is hugely symbolic in terms of recognising the contribution of British Caribbean and Commonwealth citizens to the UK.

In recent months Manchester UNESCO City of Literature Community Champion Jackie Bailey has supported members of Manchester African Caribbean communities who have worked, or whose families have worked within the NHS, to tell their stories.

A new exhibition at the Manchester Poetry Library, in the heart of the city, will bring these two projects together, and an anthology of the writing will be released, sharing people’s untold stories.

We are also supporting three emerging filmmakers to focus on the untold stories of the NHS, inspired by the British Film Institute’s NHS on Film collection.

They include the story of three women who came from India to work in the NHS, children’s palliative care, and the challenges faced by the trans and non-binary community, shedding light on the diverse range of experiences of those who use and make up the NHS.

And a new mini-series of five New Thinking Podcasts, as part of the AHRC partnership with the BBC, will take a deeper dive into the latest thinking and newest ideas around the rich history of the NHS and the future of healthcare across the UK. You can listen to the first podcast on BBC Radio 3.

Collaborative solutions

The challenges we face to secure better health and wellbeing for all can only be solved through the collaboration of different research disciplines.

Clearly the advances made in medical science, from the first heart transplant in 1958 to the COVID-19 vaccine, will be instrumental to addressing these challenges.

But the arts and humanities will also play an important role, through changing behaviour, creating narratives that deliver change, and bringing innovative new approaches to bear.

By placing lived experience at the heart of the research and innovation process, for example by including it in the peer review process, we can ensure that it is rooted in community need and responds to individuals’ perspective of the events that affect them.

Ultimately both arts and humanities methodologies and healthcare approaches focus on the needs and experience of the individual.

And it is by encouraging and stimulating the interplay of these seemingly very different disciplines that we will support changes to health and social care that will benefit all of society.

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