Art Impact for Health – Smile Train and the World Health Organization

December 14, 2020 | Smile Train

Through Art Impact for Health, an incubator initiative from the WHO Director-General, the WHO and global health stakeholders work with healthcare facilities worldwide to help enable healing, communication, and psychosocial well-being for patients, families, and communities through engaging art activities - and advance Health for All. 

“The WHO puts a lot of emphasis on data and evidence, but we must acknowledge that art has the power to inspire communication in a way that data and evidence may not,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, on the Art Impact for Health initiative.

Masks in Geneva

For children with clefts, the WHO and Smile Train came together and visualized the Art Impact for Health initiative as a tool to support resilience and psychosocial health at the individual, community, national, and global level, while simultaneously increasing the prioritization of vulnerable populations within health policy at the national and global level.

In practice, this means artistic activities are created to encourage patients to reflect on their emotions, their identity, and their self-esteem in a safe and creative environment. For families and medical professionals, the sessions provide an opportunity to connect outside the medical setting, a critical aspect in building trust and open dialogue.

The events also aim to galvanize action from community members and policymakers to build a group of stakeholders dedicated to advancing Health for All.

The common theme behind these ambitious goals? The belief that art has the universal power to tell a story and engender change, whether that's for a single patient, a single family, a community, or an entire world.

“Art is a universal language." says Isabelle Wachsmuth, renowned artist and WHO lead of the Art Impact for Health Initiative. "Art has no borders and promotes diversity in unity. It responds to our need to share, inspire, and transcend our perceptions and senses to reveal our infinite potential.”

The first event, hosted in Peru in early March of 2020, was held at Smile Train partner Fundación Margarita at Clínica Zegarra. Before the event, 19 local artists and 1 international artist were asked to participate in the event by decorating beautiful 3-D masks.

Their art greeted policymakers and stakeholders during the kickoff event, which convened community members, WHO and Smile Train team members, press and local and regional policy makers. The next day featured a workshop with patients, families, medical providers, and community stakeholders, who each decorated their own masks. Isabelle Wachsmuth simultaneously painted a representative mural around the event, pausing often to speak with patients on their projects.

“The Art Impact4Health event in Peru united a community of artists, patients, families, providers, and advocates over the course of two days. Watching patients and providers express themselves through art was incredible. In that moment, on that day, they were no longer patients, families, or providers – they were artists united in creating and healing. It has supported the rehabilitation and long-term health of patients.” says Dianne Erquiaga, who led the Art Impact 4 Health Peru event.

The providers and patients weren't the only ones impacted by the event.

“The Art Impact for Health movement is an amazing initiative, which focuses on supporting children with cleft lip and palate improving their quality of life. At the same time, it congregates the community around this important joint effort.” said Romy Tincopa, Director for Social Affairs for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Perú.

This initiative, which has become largely virtual in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is continuing to unite patients, providers, and national and international policymakers.

On October 20, Smile Train joined the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNGSII, UNESCO, UPEACE, WHIS, WWW, WAAS, and the Permanent Mission of Peru to the UN at the launch of the Art Impact For Health and SDGs Exhibition at the Palais de Nations in Geneva. Now, the art hangs in the halls of the United Nations Geneva, where it catches the eyes of policymakers and global health leaders every day.

A second event was recently hosted in Colombia - and more will continue to be held throughout 2021.

“At Smile Train, we don’t just treat clefts – we empower communities to treat the whole family affected by cleft. Using art to connect patients, families and providers has long been part of our model of care. This partnership has helped us grow and develop our organization goals, and we are thrilled by the impact we have already seen through these joint events.” says Pamela Sheeran, Vice President of Strategic Programs and Partnerships for Smile Train.

Read more about the launch of the art exhibition in Geneva below!

The launch of the exhibition, which drew a crowd of various global health and human rights leaders, opened with Ms. Sigrun Haberman, Chief, Library Services Section, UN Library and Archives Geneva, giving thanks to the event hosts and remarking on the importance of art in advancing advocacy, saying, “Art creates interaction, it can enhance understanding, and it can also create a feeling of connectedness, which can bring out values such as solidarity, tolerance, and equity.”

She then introduced a video message from Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO. He spoke on the importance of the exhibition and the Art Impact 4 Health project in advancing Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being. “To achieve the ambitious targets the world has set us in the Sustainable Development Goals, we must use every tool at our disposal to change behavior and drive impact, to spark people’s imagination about what is possible, and to stimulate people to act in new ways.”

Ambassador Silvia Alfaro, Permanent Representative of Peru to the United Nations and Other International Organisations in Geneva, spoke about the Art Impact 4 Health project in Peru, and the masks that hung around the speakers. “The masks represent the patients’ abilities to overcome challenges and be resilient…[and] the true meaning of a health recovery pathway, in which we shall see art as a vehicle to raise awareness, to empower individuals, and to fight stigma and discrimination.”

Dr. Isabelle Wachsmuth, World Health Organization representative, leading French artist, and the visionary behind the Art Impact 4 Health initiative, spoke on the purpose of the collaborative project. “The main goal of Art Impact 4 Health and the SDG initiative is to raise awareness and change individual actions. The SDGs can only be achieved through a shared vision and authentic leadership…. Art and culture have an important role to play in creating resilient people and inclusive communities.”

Dr. Isabelle Wachsmuth

Dr. Wachsmuth then introduced a panel comprised of Art Impact 4 Health partners, including Vice President for Strategic Programs and Partnerships, Pamela Sheeran, Smile Train’s Program Director for South America, Dianne Erquiaga.

Pamela shared how Smile Train’s model of partnership with local medical professionals makes our organization and the patients we support more resilient, more flexible, and ultimately more aligned towards a sustainable vision of health and wellness. With a model of partnership and empowerment, Smile Train is uniquely able to invest in programs like Art Impact 4 Health that care for the whole patient, including their mental and emotional development, and bring communities together – all of which is crucial for patients with clefts. “Children with clefts are often hidden, misunderstood. We’re not able to reach them and the communities themselves are not able to understand the care that they can receive. Art has helped, through the years, overcome that challenge,” Pamela said.

Pam speaking

Dianne spoke to the impact she saw from the Art Impact 4 Health event hosted in Peru. “The ArtImpact4Health event in Peru united a community of artists, patients, families, healthcare providers, and advocates over the course of two days. Watching patients and providers express themselves through art was incredible. In that moment, on that day, they were no longer patients, families, or providers – they were artists united in creating and healing. It has supported the rehabilitation and long-term health of patients. “We also were able to use this event to engage local government and the community to come, see the art, and learn more about patients with clefts and the work that we were doing. Through art, we were able to spark a dialogue with these policymakers and raise their awareness for our partners and patients.”

Dianne speaking

Smile Train is working with the WHO to plan for the future and continue moving this essential collaboration forward.

“This partnership has helped us grow and develop our organization goals,” said Pamela. “We are thrilled by the impact we have already seen through these joint events, and we’re dedicated to this partnership with the WHO, with the initiative Art Impact for Health, and to offering health and healing to all families affected by clefts.”