LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Lying in bed at Norton Audubon Hospital, Martha Bishop closed her eyes, clapped her hands and tapped her toes as music therapist Kerry Willis strummed a guitar beside her and sang an old country song.
“It takes your mind off the pain,” Bishop, an 87-year-old patient with arthritis who recently had abdominal surgery, said of the song. “It relaxes you.”
Music therapy is on the rise both locally and nationally, as researchers, doctors and hospitals increasingly embrace it as a way to alleviate pain and anxiety, aid rehabilitation and help general healing.
Last week, Norton Healthcare — which already had one of the largest music therapy programs in this part of the United States — opened a $400,000 expansion and renovation of a therapy area at Norton Audubon that includes performance space, a spot for patient classes, a music library, offices, a concert grand piano and storage space for musical instruments.
“They are in the forefront of hospital-wide programs,” said Al Bumanis, spokesman for the American Music Therapy Association. “That’s a good model program others can learn from.”
Nationally, music therapy was offered in more than 26,000 healthcare facilities across the United States in 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available, and nearly a million patients received music therapy sessions.
Darcy Walworth, director of music therapy at the University of Louisville, said the practice is gaining acceptance among the medical community as a growing body of research shows its effectiveness.
At the same time, insurers are increasingly paying for it. Medicare includes music therapy as a covered service in partial-hospitalization programs, and many private insurers cover it on a case-by-case basis. Costs vary, but Bumanis said it can be around $75 per half-hour for a private session.
Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist from North Carolina who runs a network called Quackwatch, which expresses concerns about health care fads, said music and relaxation can be helpful, but music therapy is “a very expensive way to deliver that,” and he doesn’t think the taxpayers or insurance policyholders should have to pay for it.
Judy Simpson, director of government relations for the national association, acknowledges that some people consider music therapy a costly “extra,” but she points to studies showing it can help shorten hospital stays and relieve nausea, fatigue and pain without drugs.
“In that respect,” she said, “we actually help save money.”
The notion of using music to heal is as old as Aristotle and Plato, but according to the association, the modern profession took shape after World Wars I and II, when musicians played at veterans hospitals to help patients suffering psychiatric and other trauma.
In the early years, Bumanis said, music therapy was largely confined to “the psychiatric realm.” But Walworth said music therapy is now growing fastest in medical care.
Norton officials said theirs was the first music therapy program in Kentucky, beginning as a small pilot project in 2002. It was inspired by longtime Norton Audubon pathologist Dr. Robert Lerman, a musician who sang and played piano.
After he was diagnosed with liver cancer, Lerman received music therapy as part of his treatment in New York and wanted to bring it to Louisville. When he succumbed to cancer, his family provided funding to launch the program in his memory.
Today, Norton’s program includes eight music therapists and two interns. Their expanded headquarters — funded by gifts through the Norton Healthcare Foundation — features a glass wall overlooking a wooded area and a concert grand piano donated by Gist Piano.
Norton’s music therapists get referrals from doctors and other healthcare professionals, and are part of a patient’s healthcare team. Their job is to provide physical, cognitive, emotional and social support to meet individual patients’ needs.
“We’re using music to address non-musical goals,” said Jenny Branson, music therapy supervisor at Norton. Goals include pain management, relaxation and “procedural support,” such as weaning patients off ventilators and supporting them through painful dressing changes.
Much of the care happens at bedside, and music therapists say they match the music to the patient’s interests.
That’s where Willis serenaded Bishop earlier this week, singing “Hey Good Lookin'” and “Walk the Line” in a gentle voice, letting her play along with a tambourine and strum an instrument similar to an autoharp called a “Q chord.” Later, she played guitar and hummed while guiding Bishop through a relaxation exercise.
“Were you thinking about your pain while we were playing?” Willis asked.
“No,” Bishop answered. “I still have it, but it’s not so bad.”