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Interview with Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar, Director of Research & Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, spoke with UF Center for Arts in Medicine’s Operations Manager Kimberlee Campbell-Smith after the Creating Healthy Communities: Arts + Public Health in America convening in Cincinnati, Ohio. The convening was hosted by the University of Cincinnati at the Health Collaborative, where public health through placemaking, wellbeing and creative environments was the focus throughout the day.

Q.   What was the issue at the heart of your provocation?  

A.    I was arguing for what it means to be taken seriously by people who are entrenched within the healthcare system in terms of policy and research. I mean the decision-makers who determine what's worth paying for. We shouldn't shy from rigor and should embrace the fact that there's a much greater need for it in demonstrating how and under what conditions the arts can add value to the system. In doing so, we need to monitor the quality of research about the arts and health and its ability to shape current practice.

As you know, we're in an increasingly consumer-driven environment when it comes to healthcare. So we can't be attentive only to what we're talking about in boardrooms and at clinical research conferences. We need to be thinking about evidence as a continuum—recognizing the role of qualitative research and case studies alongside observational studies and randomized, controlled trials.

Q.    Why is this important right now with regards to health communication and community development population health?

A.    There’s long been a realization that we need to cut costs in the healthcare system while still providing the best quality care to patients. In particular, there has been some focus on non-pharmacological solutions—or, at any rate, behavioral interventions that can complement and enhance traditional therapies. We see this, for example, in chronic disease and pain management. It takes cultural intelligence—emotional intelligence, certainly--to know how patients will respond to therapies. This involves not looking merely at demographic factors—at race, ethnicity, and other proxies for culture—but really understanding social behavior: how these patients engage with their communities.

Q.   What would be a question or challenge that you would pose to our audience?

A.    Clearly identify the mechanisms and outcomes of the arts in contributing to human health. By “the arts,” I various forms of arts participation, arts therapies, and arts and cultural assets. Sometimes the arts are deliberately therapeutic, sometimes not.

Q.   If you were to make a call to action, what would it be and to whom?

A.    Arts organizations working in the health space, and creative arts therapists, should make tighter connections with health economists and policy-makers who seek to understand how to improve efficiency in the healthcare system while providing the highest quality of care to patients. More and better studies of the cost-effectiveness of the arts in health may result.  

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