Unpacking the Matrix 3/10: Health & Human Services

August 13, 2015

By: ArtPlace America

Those who have been following ArtPlace’s progress closely know that we talk about our work as investing in arts-based strategies to help achieve place-based outcomes in order to reposition arts and culture as a core sector of community planning and development.  In order to make sure that we are covering the entire field of community planning and development, we have identified ten sectors that generally cover that terrain.

At our annual Grantee Summit that we hosted in Philadelphia in May, we organized our breakout sessions around these ten sectors, featuring our grantees working in those areas in conversation with an expert from the field.  This post is the third in a ten-part series continuing those conversations, and it focuses on Health and Human Services.

Below is a summary of a conference call we hosted with Theo Edmonds (Co-founder of IDEAS xLab in Louisville, KY), Joseph Kunkel (an architect working with the Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority and the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative, NM) and Rupal Sanghvi, MPH (Founder and Principal of HealthxDesign in Brooklyn, NY).

Right off the bat, Rupal Sanghvi pointed out that “Public Health” might be a better title for this matrix sector over “Health and Human Services” to reflect this broader conceptualization when considering the contributions of arts and culture. Public health and wellness are not limited to the confines of clinical care or services, whereas often health and human services refers more narrowly to service-based approaches to health, she explained. 

Theo Edmonds is the co-founder of IDEAS xLab, which drives artist residency projects and creative workforce development in Louisville, KY's Smoketown neighborhood. In addition to this work, he brought his years of experience as a healthcare executive to the conversation and began by contextualizing the current healthcare marketplace: the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act has financially incentivized insurance companies to keep people healthy. Insurers now often use the Robert Woods Johnson County Health Rankings model to measure community health, which Theo says breaks down as follows: "50% looks at improving health outcomes - about 30% of those are health behaviors like tobacco use, diet and exercise, smoking cessation, drug use, and sexual activity. 20% is access to quality clinical care. The entire other 50% of the equation is based upon social, environmental and economic factors: education, employment, income, family and social support, air and water quality, and community safety." 

Health metrics and socio-economic factors are more intertwined than ever, supporting an increasingly holistic model of public health. "All of these other areas of how we live, play and work drive the rest of the equation. I think that's the way in to make the case for arts and culture and design," said Rupal.

According to Theo, there are three discrete elements to public health:

1.     Prevention and early diagnosis

2.     Treatment

3.     Secondary prevention

We found this three-part framework helpful in considering how arts-based interventions intersect with the health sector.

On the prevention and early diagnosis front, the group agreed that community engagement and education are natural fits for the arts.  Theo and Rupal mentioned that leaders in the health sector realize that arts and culture contribute positively to health outcomes–they just aren't quite sure how to fully harness it. Theo recommends conversations between healthcare sector thought leaders and creative placemakers as a way to uncover opportunities that extend beyond community engagement.

Where treatment is concerned, emerging initiatives like GE’s Adventure Series are turning to creative solutions to improve patient experiences. The project brings engineers and designers together to make MRIs more welcoming and fun for children. The MRI rooms are outfitted to look like pirate shipwrecks or jungle landscapes and even the machines themselves receive a facelift to reinforce the theme. 

Perhaps arts and culture can be the force that encourages the kind of behavioral shifts needed for sustained health improvement on both the individual and community scale.

Secondary prevention is complex in that it often requires behavioral and cultural shifts in order to prevent recurrence. Joseph’s work with The Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority is an example of the kinds of strategies that can promote sustained improvement in health indicators.  They’re building a pedestrian pathway between the Santo Domingo Pueblo and its nearest commuter rail station featuring art installations that celebrate the Pueblo’s culture.  The path will both boost active recreation through increased pedestrian activity and decrease vehicular deaths by providing a safe alternative to walking along the two-lane highway. 

"By combining pedestrian infrastructure with creative elements that celebrate the local culture, we hope to highlight the importance of healthy lifestyles and the relationship to culture, community, and place." Joseph and his team are partnering with Johns Hopkins to track how the trail impacts a broad range of health indicators within the community. Perhaps arts and culture can be the force that encourages the kind of behavioral shifts needed for sustained health improvement on both the individual and community scale.

As you may have noted, ArtPlace is commissioning a field scan on Public Health and the arts, so we’re particularly excited to learn more about this intersection.  If you have thoughts that would help deepen the role that arts and culture play in driving healthier communities, please share them via the comment section below.