Cancer patient Glenn Carpenter never thought of himself as an artist. But his widow recalls that when he picked up a paintbrush during his first art therapy session at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, his face lit up. With what little strength he had, he drew an abstract painting connected to his love of golf. Art allowed him to reconnect to a hobby he could no longer play and provided a respite from the draining side effects of chemotherapy.

“Creating art was the best part of Carpenter’s day,” said Jacek Pinski, MD, who served as Carpenter’s oncologist. Dr. Pinski is the founder of the new Institute of Arts in Medicine (IAM) at USC, where art heals patients’ souls alongside cutting-edge medical treatments.

IAM, which celebrated its official launch in March, has three goals: to offer patients the opportunity to participate in the expressive arts in a variety of settings, including outpatient, inpatient, individual and group sessions; to conduct research that explores the benefits of art therapy and other creative modalities through clinical trials; and to develop educational programs in art therapy for USC students.

“Research is very important because we want to validate creative interventions in the care of patients,” said Dr. Pinski. “At USC, we have the infrastructure to conduct clinical trials to study this form of intervention and measure outcomes.”

Dr. Pinski is joined by Paige Asawa, Ph.D., LMFT, ATR-BC, who serves as the Clinical and Academic Education Director for IAM. “Many patients diagnosed with cancer are experiencing psychological components they may have never experienced in their lives,” said Dr. Asawa. “Art therapy helps the patient access what’s happening within them that they don’t have the words to describe. We want to show that by using these treatments, we’re helping people heal both physically and psychologically through the art process.”

“There’s no question that certain medical procedures and chemotherapy are associated with stress,” said Dr. Pinski, adding to Dr. Asawa’s statement. “Stress is correlated with the immune system. The immune system plays a critical role in keeping cancer under control.”

IAM is developing research studies to track patient responses to cutting-edge, arts-based care services. These include virtual reality studies aiming to decrease anxiety and pain perception during uncomfortable procedures. These include bone marrow biopsy and prostate biopsy. While wearing a VR headset, patients may select from a menu of immersive musical and visual environments.

“We will measure anxiety levels, depression levels, and stress hormone levels in patients receiving virtual reality, expressive arts therapy, humor therapy or meditation through guided imagery, and compare those patients to a non-intervention, control group,” Dr. Pinski said of another study, focused on hospitalized inpatients receiving chemotherapy.

Moving forward, IAM plans to extend its expressive arts therapy services to other patient populations, such as patients with Alzheimer’s, as well as to physicians and medical staff at risk of burnout. IAM is also establishing graduate and post-graduate professional and doctoral programs in art therapy; developing internship opportunities for undergraduate art students to interact with patients; and creating wellness events for Keck School faculty and staff.

“I’ve always believed that merging art with medicine would benefit patients,” said Dr. Pinski. “To be successful in science, you have to be a little creative.”

Eric Weintraub