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Feeling isolated? You can now be prescribed a trip to the museum

Monday, January 28, 2019

Front image of museum building

By CHRISTIAN BLAKE, University of Toronto

In 2013, British researchers found museums can:

  • reduce social isolation by providing positive experiences;
  • provide calming experiences, leading to decreased anxiety;
  • bolster self-esteem and a sense of identity;
  • support communication between families, caregivers and health professionals.

For his visit to the ROM, Alfonso was joined by his wife and two boys, ages 9 and 12. He’s a bit of a history buff and wanted to use this opportunity to share something that he loves with his kids. “I felt a great sense of accomplishment and pride being able to teach my kids about Canada’s history, the world’s history, our history. It made me feel empowered, like I grew as a person,” he said.

Alfonso speaks about the impact of social prescribing on individuals, but when we consider these programs more broadly, we find social prescribing can have a real impact on health-care systems at large.

A study done by the University of West England in 2016 showed a 23 per cent decline in emergency room admissions, and a 21 per cent decline in physician appointments in the six months after a social prescription. For a health-care system like Canada’s, with some of the longest wait times in the developed world, the appeal of social prescribing is seemingly self-evident.

So why has it not fully caught on?

Healthcare is well-known for its rigorous standards when it comes to emerging treatment options (rightfully so), and the level of evidence for social prescribing’s benefit is not quite fulsome enough to gain a sweeping endorsement. According to a review in the British Medical Journal, this is partly because studies have been small, anecdotal, or poorly designed. However, the same article did note that, “despite clear methodological shortcomings, most evaluations presented positive conclusions.”

Although hard evidence remains at a premium, social prescribing continues to grow, and the role of cultural organizations is important. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing identifies participation in leisure and culture activities, such as museum visits, as one of eight contributors to better physical and mental health, and a creator of opportunities for socializing, relaxation and learning new things.

As a result, cultural organizations have leaned into their role as spaces that can contribute to health and well-being. Starting in January 2019, the ROM expanded their small trial of 50 prescriptions into a yearlong social prescription pilot in collaboration with the Museum’s 100 Community Access Network partner organizations, and the Alliance for Healthier Communities.

Through this program, thousands of people like Alfonso, who are accessing health or social services, will have the opportunity to benefit from the enriching experience of engaging with art, culture and nature. The ROM and the Alliance will also evaluate the outcomes of being prescribed a visit to the museum, and the results of social prescribing as a whole, with the aim of producing strong evidence for these types of initiatives.

And, of course, as a health-care practitioner and ROM professional I would encourage everyone to explore a museum — especially during winter, when we tend to be more isolated — and pay attention to your sense of well-being in the hours and days afterwards.

Museums as medicine? I’m certainly excited to find out.

Christian Blake is a registered occupational therapist and adjunct faculty member in the Department of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy at U of T. He is Acting Manager, Inclusion at the Royal Ontario Museum. Doctors’ Notes is a weekly column by members of U of T’s Faculty of Medicine.

Original article appears in The Toronto Star. Read it online.

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