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Prevention and cure – prescribing the arts

The launch of the National Academy for Social Prescribing in the UK is a welcome step forward for an idea which has been growing in momentum in recent years, argues Abigail Pogson, Managing Director at Sage Gateshead. But the full picture includes prevention as well as cure

With both my parents and my children succumbing to the flu which has been rampaging around and living in a solidly red constituency during a Labour general election campaign which has been big on health, my awareness of the National Health Service has been high over the past few weeks. Prescriptions have been on my mind one way or the other.

In fact, they had been on my mind pre-election and pre-flu as well. Just before parliament closed for pre-election purdah, the National Academy for Social Prescribing was launched with ministers from several departments championing its creation. This signalled a step forward in awareness and co-ordination around the idea of social prescribing, which has been developing steadily in recent years.

Properly targeted, the results can be both significant and cheaper than medical-only routes

In my own sector – the arts – social prescribing and the number of programmes of work and collaborations between the NHS and artists and arts organisations have been developing over the past decade. It’s important to note that social prescribing involves a number of sectors, not just the arts. But this is where I’ve seen most activity – over a number of years working in east London with the Royal London Hospital and now at Sage Gateshead working with Great North Children’s Hospital and North East Autism Society.

Properly targeted and with good partnerships between health and arts partners, the results can be both significant and (just in case we’re worried the magic money tree isn’t real) cheaper than medical-only routes. Social prescribing will only ever partially off-set medical costs, of course. But it can both play a part in reducing cost and underpin longer-term health. In short, it is a viable part of cure.

Alongside this increased focus on activity, academic institutions such as King’s College London (KCL) have long had an eye on this matter. KCL has recently launched a major new research piece into three arts in health programmes and their impact. This will contribute to a strong evidence base which ultimately will influence us to make real change in our health and social care systems.  I expect it will take us a very long time to act with confidence and implement major policy. But there is steady progress.

Listening to music you love can cause a chemical reaction in our bodies which has a positive effect

Social prescribing is, however, only a small part of the picture.  We all know the old adage that prevention is better than cure.  Whilst we build the case for the arts’ role in cure, we forget prevention at our peril.

Magenta Singers – a group for people of any age who are living with acquired aphasia, run in association with the NETA Aphasia Support Centre
Magenta Singers – a group for people of any age who are living with acquired aphasia, run in association with the NETA Aphasia Support Centre. Photo © Mark Savage

Listening to music, seeing images, hearing or reading words you love can cause a chemical reaction in our bodies which has a positive effect. The impact of this is that we function more effectively and with greater resilience as human beings – we have greater wellbeing with all of the benefits which this underpins. What’s more, hearing music, words or seeing pictures with people we like – family or friends – and in an enjoyable environment, also contribute to our sense of wellbeing and purpose as individuals. This is essentially what the arts, artists, arts organisations offer. Classic prevention territory. And as we know, prevention tends to be cheaper than even the cheapest cure.

So, as we head towards the third decade of the 21st century, I hope we’ll build new confidence in the arts as a basic part of a healthy society with healthy people, in which we equip particularly our young people with a range of opportunities and experiences which will allow them to self-prescribe throughout their lives. At the same time as participating in the cure part of the picture – in championing the arts in health, social prescribing and more broadly the health and social care reform which it implies – we can also deliver big on prevention. We should nurture both of these routes and build our individual and collective wellbeing through them.

About the author

Abigail Pogson

Abigail Pogson took up the role of Managing Director of Sage Gateshead in May 2015.

Abigail was born and grew up in Yorkshire. Following a degree in Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge University and an MA in Cultural Management at City University, she began working in the arts. Combining a commitment to developing artists and supporting them to create great work with a passion for ensuring that the arts can be accessed by as many people as possible, she has worked for English National Opera, Music Theatre Wales and the Society for the Promotion of New Music.

She joined Sage Gateshead from Spitalfields Music, a charity based in east London with an international reputation for its quality, reach and innovation. In 2007/8 she was a Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme.

Abigail also serves as a Trustee for V&A Dundee and for Sunderland Empire Theatre Trust.

Header photo: Silver Singers at Sage Gatehsead: music-making for people over the age of 50 in a relaxed, friendly, supportive environment. Photo © Mark Savage