The Calming Power of Art
How the Johns Hopkins Community Physicians’ Remington practice eases patients’ anxieties — from the moment they arrive.
Joe Riggs recalls the moment he stepped into a patient’s distressed frame of mind.
As the assistant director of operations for Johns Hopkins Community Physicians (JHCP) was working in his office, he heard a loud voice, sharp with anxiety, in the hall. An expectant mother was refusing to enter the sonography room for an ultrasound. When Riggs asked if he could help, she pointed to the photo emblem of a blackbird on the room panel.
“She told me, ‘I’m not going in there. Look what bird you have on that door! It’s bad luck!’“
After listening to her concerns, Riggs invited her into his office to search the internet for stories about the bird’s symbolism. If they discovered that the bird was a bad omen, he promised that the practice would remove it. Instead, they found that blackbirds represent wisdom, power and beauty, as well as the hope expressed in the Beatles’ classic song “Blackbird.”
Reassured, the patient went ahead with her appointment. And Riggs gained a deeper appreciation of the need to consider multiple points of view when designing and decorating a health care environment.
The JHCP practice at Remington, which opened in 2016, stands as an innovative model of patient-centered design. There are no individual providers’ offices. All care providers work together in a centralized area, a decision that promotes teamwork and aims to trim the time that patients must wait. To make the experience feel more patient-friendly, each examination room is named after a Baltimore landmark or a bird portrayed in a photo on the exterior door.
Last year, during a Patient and Family Advisory Council meeting, a patient suggested that the practice take an extra step toward creating a warm and visually appealing environment. The council member then recommended engaging local artists to commission artwork for the practice. Art students from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) were invited to produce artwork that represented the chosen landmarks and birds that would be displayed inside the exam rooms. The goal of their unusual semester-long course, created by MICA faculty member Gina Gwen Palacios and associate dean Michael Weiss, was to deliver on a Johns Hopkins Community Physicians commission to create original art for its Remington practice.
The project-driven class enabled students to research landmarks in Baltimore, learn how to communicate with clients outside the art world, meet budget and production deadlines and, perhaps most important, imagine their work through the eyes of patients they would never meet.
Which is why Riggs told them the blackbird story. “It was important for students to understand the impact that art can really have on a unique audience,” he says.
Each student artist produced four distinctive pieces of art that were reviewed and approved by a committee at the practice, comprising providers, nurses, medical assistants and clerical staff. Then, the students unveiled their artwork by transforming the practice into an art exhibit in December 2019. Thirty internal medicine examination rooms now feature familiar Baltimore landmarks, such as the Domino Sugars sign, the Patterson Park Pagoda, Fort McHenry and Camden Yards, while 14 Gyn/Ob rooms display robins, flamingos, owls, cranes and other birds that suggest the beauty of nature. (See slideshow below.)
“The biggest thing for me [about the course] was thinking about the viewer and the impact our artwork can have on someone,” says MICA student Marisol Ruiz. “Take the rooms with the birds: Those birds are being seen by a lot of expectant mothers. My classmates and I talked about what kind of feelings we want to give to them while they’re waiting for some news.”
The blackbird/sonography room now features a “tree of life” painting rendered in soothing shades of blue and white, with clusters of red berries. Ten tiny blackbirds perch on its branches. MICA student Laurel Stewart has created a piece that is fanciful, welcoming and reassuring.
It’s one of many paintings that elicit praise, according to Riggs. “Every day, patients comment on how wonderful the art is and how it makes them feel,” he says.
“We also get great feedback from our own team. Our staff members are providing care to patients in the exam rooms all day long, and their work environment and sense of well-being is really important. They say having artwork in their work environment has brought life to our practice.”
He notes that the quest to improve the patient experience at the Remington practice has meant engaging with practice staff, with students and faculty at MICA, with patients — and even with Baltimore itself: Capturing the history and spirit of city landmarks is another form of community outreach.
“This is a win for everyone,” Riggs adds. Plans now call for commissioning artwork from MICA students for additional Johns Hopkins Community Physicians practices.
Steve Kravet, president of Johns Hopkins Community Physicians, says that the primary care practice’s attention to engaging the surrounding community also characterizes more than 40 other JHCP practices around the state of Maryland and in Washington, D.C.
“JHCP has the special privilege of bringing Johns Hopkins Medicine into our neighborhoods,” he says. “Primary care is local, so we pay particular attention to opportunities to integrate into our communities in small ways and big ways: from throwing out the first pitch at minor league baseball games to sponsoring recyclable prescription bags at local pharmacies.”
One Patient’s Vision
The artistic transformation of the Remington practice depended upon suggestions from members of its Patient and Family Advisory Council, in particular, from Sarah Marie Lui.
Commissioning the paintings was her idea. After she took a job near the Homewood campus, Lui began receiving primary care at Johns Hopkins Community Physicians.
Impressed by the practice’s focus on the patient experience, she attended a PFAC meeting about how the practice could engage better with the Remington community.
“For me, [the project] was a no-brainer,” she says. “I felt we could create more opportunity to connect people and build up Baltimore by putting together two really great things: Hopkins and MICA.”
Lui’s favorite works at the Remington practice are by fabric artist Chloe Green. She praises the beauty of a brilliantly-colored peacock as well as a rendering of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum that she finds relaxing because it reminds her of the children’s television show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”. Mostly, though, she appreciates how her primary care practice blends artistic vision with medical care. She believes it demonstrates how institutions and individuals can collaborate to provide for, and sustain, their communities.
“All of us want to connect better to where we are – and we also want to make it better,” Lui says. “At the end of the day, this project shows that it is possible.”