Doctors to prescribe museum visits to help patients 'escape from their own pain'

One of the doctors behind a Montreal initiative says a visit to the museum can benefit people with conditions from mental illness and eating disorders to diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as those in palliative care.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts teams up with physicians' association for experimental treatment

A partnership between the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and a physicians' association will allow doctors to prescribe patients a trip to the museum. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

A group of Canadian physicians will be writing a new kind of prescription starting next month — a trip to the museum.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and a Montreal-based doctors' association are launching a pilot project Nov. 1 to treat patients to a day of paintings, sculpture and relaxation.

One of the doctors behind the initiative says a trip to the museum can benefit people with conditions from mental illness and eating disorders to diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as those in palliative care.

"It's so rare in medicine that you prescribe something and you do not need to worry about all those side-effects or interactions with other medication," said Dr. Hélène Boyer, vice-president of Médecins francophones du Canada.

Under the pilot project, association members will be able to issue up to 50 prescriptions granting free admission to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for a family of four. (A single ticket for an adult can normally cost as much as $31.) 

Releases hormones, distracts from chronic pain

Nathalie Bondil, the museum's director general and chief curator, made her pitch to the association at their annual meeting. The physicians were intrigued by the idea.

"We know that art stimulates neural activity," said Bondil, whose museum already employs a full-time art therapist to hold creative workshops for those with chronic illness.

"What we see is that the fact that you are in contact with culture, with art, can really help your well-being."

Dr. Hélène Boyer says she's excited to prescribe a trip to the museum to patients. (Sean Henry/CBC Montreal)

Doctors who are members of the association will be able to prescribe a free trip to the museum.

The prescription is good for two adults and two children under 17.

Taking in the art with loved ones is key to the treatment, said Bondil.

MMFA director general and chief curator Nathalie Bondil made her pitch to the association at its annual meeting.

Boyer admits they're treading on uncharted ground, but the simple act of getting out and focusing on something other than their condition can work wonders on a patient's outlook.

It can cause a release of hormones, she said, that is otherwise difficult to attain for those with chronic pain who have trouble maintaining regular physical activity.

'Modern cathedral'

The museum visits complement, don't supplement, more traditional treatment.

"What is most important is to have this experience which is to help them escape from their own pain," said Bondil.

"When you enter the museum, you escape from the speed of our daily life. It's a kind of modern cathedral."

While only doctors who are part of the association can participate in the pilot project, Boyer encourages anglophone physicians to join so that they can also take part.

Doctors will follow up with patients to see if there are any changes in their conditions, and after the project runs for one year, they will prepare a report with their cumulative findings.

The museum is already involved in 10 clinical trials assessing the impact of art on health. It is looking to help a broad range of patients, including people with eating disorders, breast cancer, epilepsy, mental illness and Alzheimer's disease.

With files from Sean Henry and The Canadian Press

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