A new national council aims to promote the use of music, dance, drama and painting in the health service. Laura Donnelly tunes in

We are not flaky people, ' insisted Michael Baum, professor of surgery at University College London medical school, as he launched a national council to bring arts into the NHS.

'We are pretty hard-nosed pragmatists.

'It is easy to dismiss this sort of initiative as soft and flaky. Well it ain't.'

Professor Baum - who chairs the council aiming to bring arts and humanities into medical education, healthcare settings and the community - is well aware that NHS managers struggling to balance the books might not make poetry their first priority.

But they would be wrong, he insisted, with strong backing from former chief medical officer Sir Kenneth Calman and Dr Jane MacNaughton, director of the centre for arts and humanities in health and medicine, which has been set up to support the council's work.

The centre, based at Durham University, where Sir Kenneth is vicechancellor, will play a pivotal role in ensuring that there is 'rigorous and appropriate research. . . to prove there is some value in what we do', said Dr MacNaughton.

It aims to provide and disseminate the same 'quality of evidence' sought in clinical research to measure the impact of interventions like dance, drama or painting on the well-being of the patient.

Sir Kenneth said: 'If there is evidence that it helps recovery rates, that it helps people feel better, then yes, health service managers will think about it. If it is just wishy washy thinking. . . they won't.'

Dr MacNaughton argued that the use of the arts in healthcare has been weakened by the use of 'soft funding', which means that initiatives such as hospital artists-in-residence tend to be short-term, with their impact rarely evaluated.

She highlighted the role of art in improving communication with patients, helping doctors to connect with patients' 'inner lives' and unexpressed fears.

'An artist in residence will reflect back that humanity in a language that will touch the person in a way that we can never do.'

The council aims to increase the role played by the arts and humanities in the education of medical students, in patient therapy and in the wider community.

Professor Baum believes current medical training pays 'lip service' to such ideals, and hopes to encourage the spread of six-year medical courses which include an extra year devoted to the arts and humanities.

Dr MacNaughton insisted that trainee doctors will not have the arts 'thrust down their throats', but hoped that interest in the arts would increase.

Work on education and ethics will start with the publication of a handbook of medical humanities.

The council also aims to encourage awareness of the therapeutic role of the arts - a subject on which Professor Baum, a consultant oncologist at University College Hospitals trust, claims some expertise.

'I think I do know what I am talking about, ' he said.

'About 10 years ago I suffered an intense period of clinical depression - a sense of worthlessness, a sense of despair. . . I painted my way out of depression.'

He said 'the commonest presentations', not only in general practice but also in cancer referrals, were related to malaise without an organic cause - ill-health caused by 'spiritual malaise in a secular society, stress, depression and millennium psychosis'.

The council also hopes to stimulate an awareness of the importance of good building design in creating a 'healing environment'.

Dr MacNaughton highlighted the impact of 'drab' environments in alienating patients from their care - a factor that lies behind the increasing popularity of alternative medicine, she suggested.

'We also have to think about the healthcare professionals who work year in year out in these miserable buildings, ' said Professor Baum, a view shared by Sir Kenneth, who said NHS buildings were 'often not designed with humans in mind'.