Assignment for Medicine and the Arts (FutureLearn MOOC in association with the University of Cape Town)

Enhancing the Experiences of Leukaemia Patients and their Parents at Two UK Children’s Hospitals

Around 1,600 children in the UK are diagnosed with cancer each year, and of those around 500 will be diagnosed with a form of leukaemia – most commonly acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), although some will experience chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). Treatment for ALL can take up to two years for girls and up to three years for boys, with repeated short-term stays in, or visits to, hospital. Treatment for AML generally lasts only six months, but the child often has to stay in hospital for the whole of that period. CML cannot be cured, except in cases where a suitable stem cell donor can be found for a transplant, but 90% of patients will survive for more than five years by taking daily doses of chemotherapy drugs.

Treatments for all forms of leukaemia can cause severe upset and disruption in the lives of patients and their families, from the worry prior to diagnosis to the isolation from friends and school during hospital stays, and due to treatment side effects and infections made more severe due to suppressed immune systems, which can also disrupt plans due to their unpredictability. All these issues can be distressing for patients – and also for their young siblings – but hospitals are working to improve experiences and to make treatments less scary than they seemed in previous decades.

A centre local to me treating childhood leukaemia, amongst other conditions, is Sheffield Children’s Hospital. The experiences of patients and their families visiting the hospital are enhanced by artworks on the walls and by the use wherever possible of furniture and equipment that looks as non-clinical as possible. Many of the artworks and room design plans are facilitated by the group Artfelt, a programme developed by The Children’s Hospital Charity enable children to receive treatment and recover in an environment tailored to them. The programme also puts on art workshops aimed at providing distraction and reducing anxiety before operations, and also during long stays on the wards.

Nationally, the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London is a major centre for the treatment of childhood diseases, including leukaemia. Once again, art features prominently on the walls in all areas of the hospital. However, since the hospital is considerably larger, more use is made of thematic representations. Wards, in the main, are named after wild animals, with Lion, Elephant, Fox and Giraffe wards treating inpatients whose diseases include leukaemia, while the Safari centre treats patients who are able to return home after their day’s treatment. The hospital also provides an activity centre for inpatients, offering not just opportunities to create visual art, but also to take part in signed singing, interactive entertainment and meetings with Therapy Dogs, amongst other activities.

These two hospitals use art and other forms of creative activity to enliven the experiences of young patients and to make hospital visits and stays a less threatening experience. Each could learn from the other, and many other institutions could learn better practices from both. It is however noticeable, that in many cases the art provisions come from outside the main hospital structure via charities, and that medical staff seemingly are not as involved in the programmes as has been seen at some other hospitals featured in this course so far.

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