Participatory arts programmes for specific patient groups


Participatory arts programmes aim to get people taking part. They are normally targeted at a specific audience such as a patient group or people supporting a patient such as carers, and are designed to meet an identified health or wellbeing need. They can take place in healthcare institutions such as hospitals but can also take place in broader settings such as in the local community, including public spaces or participants’ homes. Examples of participatory arts programmes include:

  • ? Dance-physio classes for amputees
  • ? Dementia reminiscence sessions
  • ? Singing workshops for people with chronic lung disease
  • ? Drumming workshops for people with depression
  • ? Museum object handling for people with Alzheimer’s disease
  • ? Magic tricks to improve motor skills for movement impairments
  • ? Hip-hop groups to improve support networks and reduce isolation in vulnerable teenagers


As with arts in the healthcare environment, participatory arts programmes for specific patient groups have developed organically from activity across history. However, there has been growing interest and activity over the last century across a range of countries. In particular, a common pattern within these countries has been the move from individuals developing their own projects to larger, even nationwide, programmes being delivered at scale. This has been supported by the formation of national alliances acting as umbrella organizations, linking together projects and providing support for larger-scale funding and activity.

For example, in the UK during World War II, a highly successful venture was the Entertainments National Services Association (ENSA), which brought live music to wounded servicemen in military hospitals. After the war, Sheila McCreery, an employee at the newly established Arts Council, had the idea of continuing this scheme in the new National Health Service hospitals. In 1947, 22 pilot concerts were given by famous artists and the success of this led to the development of the Council for Music in Hospitals (CMH). In 1999, CMH was rebranded as Music in Hospitals and still delivers over 4,000 concerts per year in hospitals around the UK.(11) Similarly, the USA has large-scale national programmes that have developed over the past few decades, such as Musicians on Call; an organization that provides music to patients in hospital, reaching over 500,000 patients since it was started in 1999.

Alongside the expanding work of these charities, national networks also have been established. Some of these have struggled with issues such as funding and been forced to close, such as the National Network for the Arts in Health (NNAH) founded in the UK in 2000 and disbanded in 2006; the Society for Arts in Healthcare founded in 1991 in the USA and later rebranded as the American Arts & Health Alliance before it too was forced to close; and the Australian Network for Arts and Health established in 1997 but closed in 2004. Nevertheless, over the past decade, new organizations have been founded. For example, in the UK, the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing was formed in 2012. Comprising nine regional organizations across England, it advocates on behalf of work in the field and acts as a hub of information as well as encouraging the use of the arts by health and social care providers and working in partnership with the Special Interest Group in Arts, Health and Wellbeing run by the Royal Society for Public Health. In the USA, one example of national work is the Society and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which has undertaken programmes of work mapping the field of arts in healthcare institutions to try and integrate the arts within healthcare on a national level. And in Australia, the Australian Centre for Arts and Health (ACAH) leads an annual conference while the Institute for Creative Health (ICH) sponsors national awards and has worked with Creative Partnerships Australia, a government organization established to increase private sector support for the arts.

Case study

Title: Breathe Magic Intensive Therapy Programme

Aims and objectives: Approximately 1 in 1,300 young people has hemiplegia: a paralysis affecting one side of the body. Of the young people affected, 65% could benefit from intensive motor therapy, and of those, 60% also suffer from psychosocial comorbidities. However, there are limited intensive motor therapies available, with few that concurrently integrate psychosocial therapies and even fewer that are fun for children.

The project: Breathe Magic Intensive Therapy is a service designed by occupational therapists, academics in the field of neuroscience, and Magic Circle magicians, which incorporates traditional therapy exercises into magic tricks so children have a clear incentive and goal to carry out their rehabilitation. As part of a 12-day summer Magic Camp and follow-up workshops, young people with hemiplegia aged 7-19 undertake 78 hours of one-to-one intensive therapy in a group setting, learning not just how to do the magic tricks but also how to be a magician, speaking confidently, making eye contact, and holding the audience’s attention.

Research: Breathe Magic is built on a medical model called the Hand Arm Bimanual Intensive Therapy programme (HABIT), which has been researched in its own right. In addition, further research around the programme has shown and replicated clinically significant improvements in bimanual motor skills and independence following the programme, reported improvements in psychological wellbeing, communication skills, self-esteem, and parent-child relationships, and shown reduction in the hours of care and support needed by each child. The programme has been shown to be comparable cost-wise to other treatments such as Botulinum toxin injections and, through its combined psychosocial and physiological approach supporting mental health and encouraging independence among young people, it also helps people with hemiplegia to engage more and contribute to society, with wider potential economic gains. To date, camps have been run in Wales, Australia, and England, where it has been commissioned across the National Health Service. A new programme is under way to try and scale the project to further locations.

Further information: For more information and to see research papers associated with the programme, visit

Many of the national associations for arts in health have bespoke websites with links to regional organizations, conferences, frameworks, and minutes from meetings. In the UK, these include the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing: www., and the Royal Society for Public Health Special Interest Group in Arts, Health and Wellbeing: groups/arts-health-wellbeing.html. In Australia, these include the Institute for Creative Health:, and the Centre for Arts and Health: www. In the USA these include the National Endowment for the Arts: For more information on other countries, The Oxford Textbook of Creative Arts, Health and Wellbeing (2015) provides a summary of global activity.(12)

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