Anita Walker betting culture is good for your health

With a portion of the state’s casino revenues, the Massachusetts Cultural Council is testing whether arts and culture can be prescribed just like medicine.

The organization is running three pilot projects where health providers, counselors, and social workers prescribe cultural activities for those with whom they work. The goal is to see whether going to the zoo, visiting a museum, or attending the symphony can have beneficial health impacts.

Anita Walker, the executive director of the Cultural Council, is convinced the experiment will work, in part because the health benefits of cultural activities have been documented in a number of studies. She’s using a portion of the revenues her agency receives from casino gambling to pay the cost of the pilot project prescriptions, but in the long run she hopes health insurers will come to see the health benefits of arts and culture and pick up the tab themselves.

“Maybe we can find a way to convince insurance companies that this is a good investment because it will save money,” Walker said on The Codcast from CommonWealth magazine. “You know insurance companies will pay for your gym membership. Insurance companies will give you a benefit if you don’t smoke. If they can see the benefit of cultural participation as a protective factor and a prevention against much more expensive consequences, maybe we can find another resource stream for our organizations.”

Walker says one of the chief benefits of arts and cultural activities is a feeling of participating in something bigger than oneself. “You can’t pick up a newspaper without reading about the epidemic of social isolation and loneliness, which leads to depression and even serious, serious physical health conditions like heart disease. I read recently that social isolation and loneliness have the same impact on your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Walker said.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council’s pilot projects are part of a broader effort, called Culture RX, to widen the reach of arts and cultural organizations across the state. The effort started more than two years ago with a partnership with the Department of Transitional Assistance to provide free or reduced-price access to arts and cultural activities to anyone with an electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, card — the delivery vehicle for food stamps. More than 250 arts and cultural organizations are participating in the program and the cards have been used to gain entrance to a museum or theater more than 370,000 times. Institutions participating in the Boston area include the American Repertory Theater, the Boston Ballet, and the Boston Children’s Museum.

The Cultural Council is now launching a similar relationship with the Massachusetts Health Connector, an agency that provides subsidized health insurance to some 200,000 people in the state. Anyone with a Connector card can attend an event or program at roughly 100 participating arts or cultural institutions for free or at a reduced price. The participating cultural institutions include the Barrington Stage Co., Jacob’s Pillow, MassMoCA, and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

The programs with the Department of Transitional Assistance and the Connector are being run with no state funds. The arts and culture organizations are providing free or reduced-price access to their facilities in a bid to broaden their audience and fulfill their nonprofit goals.

For the three pilot projects, the Cultural Council is covering the cost of admission, using a portion of the proceeds (an estimated $750,000 this year) the agency receives from the state’s two casinos – MGM in Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor.

One pilot is being run in western Massachusetts. The MACONY Pediatric Group of Greater Barrington along with the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric treatment center in Stockbridge, are doing the prescribing and 15 cultural organizations are participating, including the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Berkshire Theatre Group, the Mass Audubon Berkshire Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Mass MoCA.

A second pilot is up and running in Springfield, with the Caring Health Center, a community health center, is writing prescriptions for the Enchanted Circle Theater, the Community Music School of Springfield, and the Springfield Museums.

A third pilot is in development with the Franklin Park Zoo and the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center. The idea is to give free zoo memberships to some 125 families with new children to incentivize the parents to bring their new baby back for preventive care.

Later this year, a statewide test of the arts prescription program is expected to roll out along with a third-party research effort designed to report on its effectiveness.  Walker said the initial program targeting people with EBT cards proved to her that people who often have difficulty making ends meet financially have a hunger for cultural experiences.

“That really spoke loudly to us. There is a human need for this kind of experience and that it is beneficial,” she said. “This isn’t a new idea that there are things beyond medication that can be beneficial to people and helpful. We’ve seen health centers prescribing fresh fruits and vegetables, prescribing a yoga class or an exercise class. So we’re just adding something else to the medical kit of community health workers that might make a difference.”



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