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Live music in surgeries – bringing harmony to primary care?

1 May 2007

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Waiting to see the doctor can be stressful or just plain boring, but a unique project has shown that live music in the GP waiting room can have a soothing effect on patients.

Ten practices and health centres in south Bristol allowed musicians to give a series of performances in their surgeries last year, as part of a project designed to improve the atmosphere and introduce people to instruments they may not have seen before.

Thousands of concerts are held in hospitals, care homes and hospices, providing therapeutic benefits to patients, but it is unusual for them to be held in GP surgeries.

The £6,000 project, called “Music While You Wait”, saw musicians from three different musical genres  – playing
Columbian pan pipes, a harp and guitar folk music respectively – in hour-long concerts.

Funded by the National Lottery and Bristol City Council, the music was organised by the charity Live Music Now! Founded in 1977 by the legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the charity works with people whose circumstances restrict their access to live music, and helps to develop the careers of promising
young musicians.

Music practice
The project was the idea of Elizabeth Williams, who at the time it started up was primary care development manager of Bristol South and West Primary Care Trust (PCT). She heard a radio programme about the benefits of live music in hospitals, and wondered if the idea could work in primary care.

Last night a GP saved my life
The concerts provoked a mixture of reactions from patients and staff. Steve Davies, practice manager of the Whitchurch Health Centre, Bristol, was very enthusiastic.

“Our surgery is in the roughest part of the city,” he says. “We signed up for the project because we wanted to try something different and thought this was a unique scheme, which had great merit. We had no idea how our patients would react to the music, but it proved to be really successful and we had a lot of positive feedback from patients.”

He says the musicians were very professional and interacted well with the patients.  The music was not too loud and had a calming effect on patients, making them come in quietly, not wanting to interrupt the performance.

One common theme was that the music provided a “wall of sound”, which prevented patients from overhearing confidential conversations at the reception desk – an issue for this practice, which is located in an old building.

An unexpected compliment came from one of the musicians, who commented that he had never seen patients sitting still for such a short time. “This showed that we always run to time – quite an achievement when we often have as many as nine doctors consulting simultaneously – but until then this was never something we had paid attention to,” says Mr Davies.

For him, the biggest winners were their youngest patients: “The musicians were a big hit with the children; they were just in awe of the music and were really transfixed by it – it was lovely to see.”

Not suffering in silence
However, the project did not work in the Priory Surgery in Bristol, where the partners asked the musicians to pull out after only one performance because they found the music was too loud.

Practice manager Debra Penney explains: “Unfortunately, our Edwardian building does not have good acoustics or the space to accommodate such a project. Our waiting area is small, so patients had to sit too close to the musician to appreciate the performance.

“Patients and staff complained during and after the first performance due to the volume; we therefore made a decision to pull out. Had we had a larger waiting area, the outcome could well have been more positive.”

The project also attracted considerable media publicity, both positive and negative. During July, a quiet news time, there were articles about it in every national and local newspaper, and on Radio 4. Much of this initial publicity was negative and complained about the waste of resources, even though the PCT had made it clear that the project was not being paid for by the NHS.

Musical differences
The majority of patients who responded to surveys conducted by the PCT said they enjoyed the performances, agreeing that they made them feel more relaxed, improved the atmosphere in the waiting room and made the time go more quickly. Many said they would like to hear more.

Staff gave a more muted response. A majority said they enjoyed the music, that it relaxed them and improved the atmosphere in the practice, and a number agreed that it improved confidentiality. However, a significant number found it inappropriate and distracting, and some even thought it was a waste of money. A few said it made them feel edgy and cross.

Ms Williams, now public involvement manager in the newly formed Bristol PCT, said the project had been evaluated overall as a success. However, a decision has been made not to extend the project as originally planned – since the pilot, two PCTs in Bristol have merged into one and priorities have changed.

Ms Williams says there were a number of positive outcomes from the project. Their evaluation demonstrated that live music has a beneficial impact on the atmosphere of the waiting room. At the same time, it gave young people an opportunity to perform, and brought music to parts of Bristol where people do not normally have an opportunity to listen to live shows.

Overall, there was a strong feeling from patients that it was successful, a bit less so from the staff. The musicians were very positive about the experience, liked the smaller venues and the changing audience with people coming in and out. But on the downside, the bad press had made them query whether to do it again.

Ms Williams concludes: “Music is performed in hospitals, is very successful in that environment and is perhaps easier to sustain. But overall, we were glad we put the music on and felt it was a positive thing to do.”


Live Music Now!