skip to Main Content

Study Finds Both Figurative and Abstract Art Have Positive Impact on Hospital Patients

hospital wall artMedical health professionals have long since accepted that wall art in hospitals and other healthcare facilities can promote healing, reduce stress, and improve the patient experience overall. Many studies have found this to be true. For example, in a study conducted by the Arts for Health staff at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center involving the installation of 18 large-scale art pieces in patient rooms, it was discovered that the patients felt the art made them feel more comfortable, more at home, and more cared for.

But in these applications, not all art has been treated equally. Experts have believed that figurative art — hospital wall art featuring nature scenes and other realistic images — is better suited for these purposes than abstract art. There are many theories as to why this might be so. Many of us have what’s known as “biophilia,” which is essentially a preference for natural images. In sterile healthcare settings, lush nature is hard to come by. And natural images are thought to help distract patients (namely, by allowing them to picture themselves somewhere else and thus forget about their pain). There’s also a theory called “emotional congruence,” which suggests that hospital patients will interpret a piece of art through their already established stress/anxiety — unless the hospital wall art is so positive that it shifts the viewer’s perspective.

For all these reasons, it’s easy to understand why art for healthcare facilities and hospitals typically feature charming countryside scenes or nature photographs. Because other research (and common sense) has found that abstract art is more open to interpretation, it’s been thought that this style of art could promote negative thinking and fail to aid in the healing process.

But a recent study conducted by Stine Maria Louring Nielsen and Michael Finbarr Mullins in Denmark showed that both styles of artwork for hospitals can have positive effects on patient well-being. One of the pair’s case studies from 2015 found that the type of art didn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that it was present in a room. If a piece of art was brightly colored, Nielsen found, people had positive feelings about the space — regardless of whether it was abstract or figurative.

In a separate case study conducted by these two researchers, poster reproductions of 10 art pieces were hung in patient rooms. During the next month, nearly 70 patients were interviewed about these spaces. The results showed that abstract wall art for hospitals inspired positive thinking and personal, emotional contemplation. Some patients also reported that the abstract art pieces provided them with something to focus on, which prompted deep self-contemplation and existential relaxation. They also said these pieces served as conversation-starters that did not involve their health conditions. While these results did differ in how patients viewed figurative works, the bottom line was that patients had positive reactions to all of these art pieces, no matter the style. And overall, the mere presence of this hospital wall art increased patient expectations and made them feel more confident in the facility itself.

Despite the growing number of studies on this subject, there’s still much more to be learned about the connection between art and healing. But if this recent study is anything to go by, it would seem that art of all kinds has the potential to improve the patient experience. That makes it even more important that healthcare facilities prioritize their art design. To find out more about working with our art consultants, please contact us today.