Patients are more than their diagnoses; they are people. Holistic healing is rooted in the concept of providing treatment and care to a person as a whole, as opposed to a focus on treating a specific medical condition. It is important to identify what a patient needs—beyond traditional medical treatment—to thrive. Self-expression can bridge this gap, as it engages the mind, body, and soul. In my role as a board member of the West Windsor Arts Council, which was started by members of the community back in 2002 to harness the transformative power of the arts, I have seen firsthand the impact this approach can have on patients’ well-being. I believe it is important to share these stories, because while there is still much to learn, there is also so much opportunity and space to scale these lessons. Through creativity, compassion, and collaboration, non-clinical therapies in the arts and other disciplines can provide patients a much-needed connection in an increasingly distant world, and ultimately, promote overall wellness—and in some cases, assist with the health outcomes they desire. 

Embracing Creativity 

The West Windsor Arts Center strives to use the arts—painting, music, dance, and more—to help people meet the challenges of our time. Take, for instance, its work with Eden Autism Services. There are many programs available to children living with autism, but as they enter adulthood, the options and support networks largely dissipate. And yet, many of these individuals cannot care for themselves independently. But in partnership with Eden, the center runs a program for adults living with autism to create art. Not only does it serve as an outlet for their creativity, but it also provides critical structure and routine.

The healing power of the arts is most evident in the center’s work with cancer patients, much of which has been made possible through its collaborative partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Foundation, which benefits the patients and programs of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton. The Foundation helped enhance the holistic programming at the cancer center to continue integrating a combination of technology and expertise of traditional medicine with the healing wisdom of complementary therapies. The organization is focused on the whole-body approach to enhance and stimulate the body’s natural ability to heal, creating a state of wellness and faster an improved quality of life. Holistic Coordinator, Carol Doherty, works closely with every new patient, providing each with an integrated medical and holistic treatment plan made in conjunction with a clinician. Through one program, the West Windsor Art Center was able to provide patients battling cancer with art kits donated by the foundation. Patients who chose the art kits found that the act of self-expression helped pull many of them out of depression and quelled anxiety rooted in their cancer diagnoses.

One patient, Michael—who has since passed away—had been in and out of housing programs and trapped in the cycle of poverty. He shared that when he was younger, he used to draw large chalk murals on the sidewalk but could no longer afford chalk to do so. When he first opened his art kit, he was overcome with joy and would always come back asking for more paint. Over time, there was a noticeable shift in Michael—in his disposition and even in the way he presented himself. When another patient, John, was incredibly depressed about his diagnosis, Michael pushed him to start painting as well, and ultimately, he started painting with his daughter throughout his journey. It was a phenomenal thing to see. When you are creating art, time goes away, and it becomes a type of meditation. And when you finish, there is a glow of accomplishment.  

Meeting Patients on Their Journey 

While creating art is uniquely effective, holistic healing is about much more. For some patients, pet therapy is incredibly restorative. For others, there are funds set up within the Cancer Center from community members who have experienced cancer in their own lives and wanted to make an impact on patients going through their toughest times. The “I Believe in Pink Fund” provides breast cancer patients who may need financial assistance with support for items such as wigs, prosthetics, gift cards for groceries or transportation to and from their appointments; The “Cannon Cancer Fund” provides patients of all cancer diagnoses with the same support. At its core, it is about meeting patients where they are in their journey and supporting their human experience. 

Without collaboration and compassion, however, many of these holistic remedies would not be available to patients. People make this happen. Take the generosity of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Caring individuals, like Doherty at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, took the time to understand what makes patients tick, built a vision around that, and executed an art program that provided patients with an opportunity to live well during difficult times. The program with the foundation has brought a whole community of donors, physicians, patients, caregivers, and artists of all kinds together, creating an invaluable human connection. 

An Undeniable Impact

The reality is that holistic remedies—and more specifically, the incorporation of creativity and self-expression—in patient care remain undervalued and understudied.  Aylin Green, Executive Director at West Windsor Arts Council, beautifully articulated her experience and perspective of this holistic approach that, “while the impact might not be quantifiable, it is undeniable.” There is promise in these holistic programs. They are critical in providing a space for patients to process grief and work through their grief cycles so that their healing is not disrupted by the ambiguity of that experience. What if structures that support the compassion and collaboration that make holistic medicine a viable option for all patients were not limited to just a select few?

Just as we have seen collaboration in these holistic programs, there is promise for those initiatives on a broader scale. What if health systems and provider teams prescribed healing plans alongside their treatment plans? Who would help bring value to that conversation and who are the right partners to do it effectively—especially considering the outcomes at stake for high-risk patients? Outreach to local arts councils could be a strategic partner and a piece of this puzzle, as arts organizations bring “arts for a cause” to the forefront. Meanwhile, the scientific community is exploring ways to quantify the efficacy of holistic medicine, and there is great opportunity in applying those learnings to tangible and tactical initiatives. There are several clinical trials that are trying to assess the impact of arts and holistic healing on patient outcomes. We need to know: what is working well and what is still missing? And how can donors, patients, caregivers, and arts organizations support the cause of developing bigger, more robust trials that lead to meaningful outcomes? 

I have witnessed the positive patient outcomes possible from injecting creativity into medical care, and I urge others to show compassion and push for the collaboration that could make holistic healing an option for more patients. As we look ahead to the future of healthcare, and really, “well care,” what sort of programs and initiatives can encourage and amplify holistic healing outcomes? What is healing and what does it look like? And furthermore, how do we measure success in terms of healing? I’m eager to answer these questions and others and invite you to join me in that dialogue.