Music in Intensive Care Unit: one account and some resources

I am working hard and there is a lot of tiredness.

But nice things happen: yesterday, on a newspaper that I do not even like, a very beautiful photo appeared that portrays me at work.

Yesterday, in the late afternoon in intensive care, after the usual 12-hour shift, I put some music, those 60/’70/’80s compilations you can find on YouTube. There are some patients awake and with tracheotomy, and they too were moving their arms almost in a ballet or their lips following the lyrics of the songs.

Before I left one of them called me (or rather, he waved to me) to say “Thank you, I had a wonderful afternoon”… It was amazing!

– The experience of Elena Vavassori, anaesthetist and resuscitator

Music has been an integral part of human progress, with the power to transmit powerful emotions: it is not surprising, therefore, its applications in the field of medicine, and not only for patients. As highlighted by Siu and colleagues, music can help surgeons to perform operations faster; Ullmann and colleagues show the beneficial effects of music in the operating room.

The intensive care unit is a unique environment for all involved: patients, caregivers, and healthcare workers. It is a crowded and noisy place, with frequent alarms and flashing lights. Several studies have shown how this can affect patients’ recovery, as well as many researchers have wondered if music may have beneficial effects, reducing the demand for sedation, improving patients’ anxiety levels and improving hemodynamic parameters.

Research on the beneficial effects of music on patients is constantly increasing. The same cannot be said for healthcare professionals: if it is known that a certain type of music can be useful to learn the rhythm of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (although technology can, nowadays, have more precise and innovative methods), it is difficult to find specific research on professionals working in intensive care.

As Elizabeth Flock reports, suicide rates among doctors are high and even the percentage of those who report post-traumatic stress symptoms are high. In particular, those working in intensive care have to deal with very complex situations, and are subject to high levels of burnout.

Widening the focus from music to the arts in general, let’s see how their role in supporting healthcare professionals is recognised. As highlighted by a 2010 review (also quoted by Flock), music can reduce anxiety in patients and healthcare professionals, visual arts can help to elaborate difficult and traumatic experiences, dance can relieve stress and expressive writing can help to restore balance.

Moss and colleagues at Anschutz Medical Campus (University of Colorado) are engaged in a federally funded research project that will examine how the use of the arts can relieve psychological stress in healthcare professionals. This year, the Colorado Resiliency Arts Lab (CORAL) has also launched four programs dedicated to professionals working in intensive care: expressive writing, art, music, and dance. And the University of Chicago also inaugurated its Arts Healing Program, using music and the arts from medical training.

Although the research of the effects of music on health care professionals is still in an exploratory phase, a good resource could be The Remedy Project: a series of mixtapes created by Philadelphia musicians and health care professionals for those who live in the hospital environment (patients, but also professionals), whose ultimate goal is to be an exercise of empathy between health care professionals and patients.

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