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Marking the transition – bringing art into a GP surgery

1 December 2006

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Gillian Rice
General Practitioner
Bedminster Family Practice,

Gillian is a GP partner at Bedminster Family Practice.
She has encouraged use of the arts in healthcare settings, to enhance the environment and provide arts activities that can increase patient wellbeing. She was highly commended in the 2006 Art & Work awards in the category for Outstanding Contribution to Art in the Working Environment

Over the last 20 years, like many other surgeries, we outgrew our practice premises, and in 2002 the partners decided it was time to relocate to a new site. We struggled to find suitable land on which to build a surgery, but a property developer offered to sell us space in a mixed-use development that it was planning. The £13m development was to include a public library, residential accommodation, an art gallery and a restaurant, and we felt it provided us with a great opportunity to move the practice into the heart of the local community.

Since the early 1900s, our surgery had been based in a Victorian house with a wealth of period features, so both patients and staff were apprehensive about building premises that might feel clinical and soulless in comparison. This anxiety prompted us to ask ourselves exactly what kind of environment we wanted for the new surgery. All the partners agreed that the building should be welcoming, relaxing and uplifting, and if possible should retain some of the domestic feel of the old surgery that so many staff and patients loved.

I have a strong interest in using the arts in a healthcare environment, and have previously introduced a poet-in- residence and two art therapists into the surgery. Having incorporated the arts into the culture of the practice, we could see how artists might be able to help us shape the kind of environment we wanted when the opportunity arose to design our new premises. I knew that commissioning special works of art for the new surgery might be a costly business and so was keen to obtain arts funding to help turn our dream into reality.

Applying for funding
We employed Lesley Greene, an experienced art consultant, to help us devise an arts strategy and submit a funding application to Arts Council England. We applied for £30,000 but were eventually awarded just under half that amount. Although initially disappointed by the shortfall in our budget, we made use of information provided by Arts Council England on other national and regional bodies that also fund arts projects. I applied to several organisations and eventually secured an additional £12,000 funding. The property-owning partners committed an extra £20,000, giving us an overall arts budget of around £45,000. Lesley also drew up a shortlist of artists from which we chose two to work on the project.

Patient participation
We wanted input from patients on the design of the new premises to make sure we produced a surgery that met their needs and aspirations as well as those of the GP partners and staff. We held two open meetings and invited patients’ comments on the early design plans as well as suggestions on everything from the type of seating in the waiting areas to disabled access and the reception area layout. As a result of these initial meetings, a patient participation group was set up, which remained closely involved during the building process and raised more than £1,000 for the art projects. The group continues to meet regularly, providing helpful feedback on the running of the surgery and periodically raising additional funds for the practice.

Natural theme
“Marking the transition”, a phrase used by our practice manager Helen Deverson during an initial conversation between the artists and surgery staff, reflected the desire of all those involved in the practice move to take positive elements of the old surgery into the new one. Many patients and staff loved the garden of the original surgery and were worried about the very urban setting of the new premises. It was impossible for us to create a garden at the new site, so instead we asked the artists to enhance the inside of the building by incorporating the theme of nature into the commissioned art works.

Bristol artists Annie Lovejoy and Mac Dunlop developed this theme and created some wonderful features for the new building. Beautiful glazing in the entrance doors to the surgery is based on an image of a Cornish rockface veined with quartz, providing a rich mix of translucency, texture, reflection and colour. A lighting sculpture situated above the reception area contains hanging panels that echo the etched rock veins of the entrance glazing. Each panel is a different colour and can subtly change in response to the outside air temperature.

The focal point of the main waiting room is a 2.5m-long aquarium, incorporating apparatus that allows text and moving bubbles to be projected onto the back surface of the tank. This “word bubble” now displays extracts of poems written by patients and, as the text can be changed, we hope it will offer patients an ongoing opportunity for creative expression.

Positive environment
The artworks have undoubtedly helped to create an unusual and uplifting environment for patients and staff, and the response from both groups has been overwhelmingly positive. I am now leading a research study, funded by NHS Estates, to evaluate the effect of the new surgery environment on patient satisfaction and staff wellbeing. Anecdotally, many patients have said how relaxing they find the new waiting area, so I am hopeful the study will show that the enhanced environment helps reduce patients’ stress when they’re visiting the surgery, as well as providing a pleasant and inspiring workplace for staff.

Practice managers who want to improve the surgery environment for patients and staff should consider using artists to help achieve this end. Unless the practice is prepared to foot the whole bill for specially commissioned artworks, the first task will be to secure adequate funding for the surgery’s art projects.


Information and advice
Arts Council England (see Resources) provides information on their own grants schemes and arts funding from other national and regional organisations. Be prepared to spend a lot of time searching for funding; finding suitable bodies, checking their funding criteria and filling out application forms can be a lengthy process. If you’re not familiar with the arts world, it might be worth employing an art consultant for some initial guidance.

If you cannot afford to commission new artworks, you might want to enhance the surgery with art on loan. The charity Paintings in Hospitals (see Resources) loans works of art to various healthcare facilities, including GP surgeries, for a modest fee.

Interior designers can also give useful advice on improving a surgery environment. Whether building a new surgery or revamping an old one, changes to the layout, lighting, furniture and flooring can make a huge difference to the ambience of the place, particularly if you choose colours and textures carefully. Involve both staff and patients in your plans – meetings with them may be time-consuming, and it may be difficult to reconcile different viewpoints, but if you can meet the needs and desires of both groups in creating your new surgery environment you will be rewarded with a happy workforce and vastly improved patient satisfaction ratings.

Arts Council England (ACE)
Paintings in Hospitals