Arts & Health at Duke was founded in 1978 by James H. Semans, MD, in collaboration with Wayne Rundles, MD, professor of hematology and then-president of the American Cancer Society. First known as Cultural Services, the program orginally offered monthly musical performances in the hospital cafeteria with the support of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.
With a successful grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, additional funds from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, and the support of a receptive, progressive hospital administration, the program was officially organized in October 1978.
Programming expanded to include not only performing arts but also the the acquisition of visual art for patient rooms and waiting areas and a literary arts program that offers journaling and poetry programs.
As one of the oldest and most comprehensive hospital arts programs in the United States, Arts & Health is a recognized leader in the international arts and health movement. From organizing the first convocation of hospital arts programs to publishing the first guide for developing arts in healthcare programs, Arts & Health continues to develop partnerships between arts and healthcare organizations. Janice Palmer, founding director of of Duke’s program, was also instrumental in founding the Global Alliance for Arts and Health and North Carolina Arts for Health (NCAH), the first statewide organization for the field.
Arts & Health at Duke is now a department within Guest Services of the Duke University Health System.
From the point of view of the physician, I have chosen to call this experience of cultural enrichment "healthy distraction." Although the phrase may seem incongruous, it actually describes the benefit to the patient very well, because the patient is distracted from the premonition and preoccupation which the unknown brings to an ill person. During those periods of anxiety, neither the physician nor anyone else can give the patient the reassurance that he would have if he could be transported by personally experiencing some art form, whether his particular preference is visual, auditory, or both. It is for this reason that the idea has been so attractive to physicians and nursing staff who care about the feelings of patients in this strange environment.