Imagine a care setting in which psychiatric patients can move to music with guidance from a principal dancer in a ballet company; in which a cellist plays in outpatient waiting rooms, distracting those within from the burdens of illness. Imagine a place where patients and their families take part in cathartic healing ceremonies and, together with sculptors, writers, poets and painters, create art.

This is all taking place at the Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, Va., as part of the Dr. Robert L.A. Keeley Healing Arts Program, which is funded by the clinic’s foundation. Carilion CEO and American Hospital Association Chair-elect Nancy Agee founded the program in 2012 and named it after Keeley, who was a champion of the arts and a physician at the hospital. The program funds six paid residencies a year to artists who visit the hospital a few times a week to work with patients. Patients request to work with particular artists or are paired up by clinicians. In some instances, artists work in group spaces and attract interested patients. The program also sponsors various staff, community and patient art shows, as well as other forms of creative expression.

The artists in residence — who are screened for various qualities, chief among them their ability to work with patients — often have education backgrounds or, at the very least, empathetic tendencies.

Marie Webb, who helps to manage the program as a consultant, says the artists have free rein to decide how much time they can dedicate to each patient.

“We tell the artists, ‘If you need to spend an hour with the patient, do it,’” she says. “It’s less about creating something that [patients] can keep, or what they’ve made or written — that’s a side benefit. It’s really about the involvement with the patient, so that [the artist and patient] can experience something artistic together.”

The program is free and, in some cases, is the first opportunity a patient has to work in the arts. The program has produced some tremendous outcomes, Webb says.

Clinical research shows that such social interventions can shorten recovery time and reduce the need for pain medication, and Webb says this is exemplified through the work the artists in residence do.

“Every one of the artists in residence would tell you that they experience the patient in a better mood, in a better place when they left,” Webb says. “The staff on those units would tell you that they love it when the artists are there because perhaps the patient is not ringing the call button for them as much, or perhaps the patient seems to be occupied and not thinking about their pain or their illness.”