UNC Hospitals using iPads, art to treat children

Rather than using an iPad to read magazines, surf the web or play Angry Birds, art therapists Ginger Poole and Bridget Pemberton-Smith created a project that uses art apps to help treat children in the pediatric oncology ward at UNC Hospitals.

Why iPads?

Apple’s iPad is easy to use, so patients can spend more time creating art and talking about it than learning how to use a program, Poole said.

“IPads are a sterile way to create art,” said Hillary Rubesin, community relations manager of the North Carolina Art Therapy Institute. Instead of bringing new materials to each session, art therapists sanitize the iPad after each child uses it.

The institute is currently using three iPads, but is configuring nine more it received in December from the Raleigh-based nonprofit organization, Striving For More, Inc.

Many children with a high risk of infection cannot leave their rooms to participate in regular art therapy groups, so Pemberton-Smith uses iPads to take the therapy to them.

“Kids are all growing up with this technology. They’re all attuned to it.” Pemberton-Smith added. “They’re really excited about it.”

How it works

Pemberton-Smith goes to the hospital three mornings a week.

“Sometimes I see the kids in the playroom. Sometimes they’re getting treatment,” she said. “Sometimes I just walk around with them. Their creativity amazes me.”

“Art therapy uses visual arts primarily as a means to perform mental health counseling,” Rubesin explained.

“Sometimes traditional verbal psychotherapies restrict clients’ ways of expressing themselves,” Rubesin said. “The therapeutic arts allow for other ways to express what’s going on inside.”

The institute recently got a small printer to keep at the hospital so the art therapists can print the children’s art and give it to them.

Jessica Irven, a recreational therapist at the North Carolina Children’s Hospital, worked closely with Pemberton-Smith and Poole to start the project. She called the project a “well-received new aspect of the clinic.”

She said the children have come to expect Pemberton-Smith’s presence and “actively seek that opportunity out because they have something to look forward to.”

The iPad project is helping many children overcome the negative stereotype they have of going to the doctor, Irven said.

Sometimes they play with the iPads while undergoing medical procedures, he added.  The familiar routine helps decrease stress, Irven said.

Project roots

Poole approached Pemberton-Smith about starting a digital art therapy project at UNC Hospitals a year and a half ago.  The hospital was supportive but unable to supply funding.

But the project found new life after learning of the David Turner Lymphoma Foundation, Inc., also known as “Big Dave’s Big Gift.”

Before he died of lymphoma, David Turner of Collinsville, Va., started a foundation with money he had planned to use for a transplant.  That money now helps others in similar situations.

“He was thinking of others in the last few weeks of his life,” said Suzanne Turner, the foundation’s president and David Turner’s mother.

Suzanne Turner was drawn to the iPad project because it weds the two things her son loved — technology and art.

During his last year, her son started recording rap music. “He was a computer nerd, but a very cool one,” she said.

One of Turner’s favorite memories is of her son playing self-composed rap songs to a small group of hospital personnel huddled around his laptop.

“I just know that sharing [his songs] gave him so much joy,” she said.

Turner wants others to experience that joy.  She sees art as a way for patients to define themselves outside the context of their disease.

“I just know that everyone has gifts and talents and we’re happier and healthier when we share them,” she said.

Looking ahead

Several other foundations, including the Mary Claire Satterly Foundation, now also financially support the iPad project.

Pemberton-Smith hopes UNC Hospitals will eventually employ a full-time art therapist.  “I would love to see other kids with other illnesses be able to use and get benefits from art therapy.”

Besides the iPad project, the Art Therapy Institute also caters to exceptional needs children at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City schools and to refugees from Burma.

Therapists also work in community centers, nursing homes and the “Brushes with Life” program at UNC Hospitals.

The institute will highlight the iPad project at its annual “I Heart Art” benefit Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012 at Motorco Music Hall in Durham.  Tickets are $10-$25 and can be purchased through the institute’s website.

This article was reported as a part of the JOMC 256 Features course at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

  1. Wonderful use of this technology- art therapy has so much to offer, and Poole has been sensitive to the needs and creative with her colleagues… hooray for finding funding!

    Comment by Theresa Zip on February 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm

  2. Thanks for writing this article. I just went through weeks of red tape for approval to do an assertiveness art therapy group in a residential therapeutic school using my I Pad. We used I-movie to create a claymation film using stop motion photography. I used an IPad II with the camera built in to avoid multiple machines. I-movie is a $10.00 App which was very user friendly. It was wildly successful because each participant took the time to really embrace the themes because of the medium of the I Pad.

    Comment by sherri364 on February 1, 2012 at 10:47 pm

  3. thank you for publishing the benifit of digital art therapy in children's hospitals. I also work as a D.A.T at an Israeli hospital named Shneider. We haven't perchused Ipads yet but I hope I can persuade them to get a budget for it soon because leptops are great but heavy (when running from room to room) and less friendly.

    Comment by sharon on February 2, 2012 at 8:54 am

  4. As a former UNC PICU nurse and a family friend of Mary Claire Satterly, I can be so proud of what y'all are doing in Tarheel country. Fantastic story!!!—Erin Scharer Jacksonville, Florida

    Comment by Erin Scharer on February 10, 2012 at 8:21 pm

  5. What apps can you recommend? I also work with a psychiatry team in a children's hospital and we recently acquired an iPad. Garage band is used by the music therapist. I like doodle cast for drawing with kids. Any suggestion of other apps? I'd like one with pictures of the human body and internal organs to help with talking about medical procedures

    Comment by Laura on February 28, 2012 at 6:06 am

  6. Here is amazing therapy app!

    Computer Art Therapy by AAALab, Korea University
    Available at App Store
    Released : Jan. 10, 2012
    Current Version : 1.1
    Requirement : Compatible with iPad. Requires iOS 3.2 or later
    Category : Entertainment
    Size : 22.3 MB
    Price : Free of charge for a limited period
    Link: http://itunes.apple.com/app/computer-art-therapy/
    Computer Art Therapy by AAALab, Korea University
    Available at App Store
    Released : Jan. 10, 2012
    Current Version : 1.1
    Requirement : Compatible with iPad. Requires iOS 3.2 or later
    Category : Entertainment
    Size : 22.3 MB
    Price : Free of charge for a limited period
    Link: http://itunes.apple.com/app/computer-art-therapy/

    Understand yourself and those around you just a little better!
    Countless years of research and expertise support the program.
    Bright and vivid colors reduce the smallest anxiety pangs

    Comment by felix andrew on June 22, 2012 at 10:18 am

  7. Computer Art Therapy

    Art therapy using computer analysis of shapes, colors and drawings!
    Frustrated? Depressed? Listless? or Bored with life? We’ve all experienced at least one of these emotions at one time or another. The human psyche is something which cannot be predicted or controlled, but this doesn’t mean that we are completely helpless in identifying these negative feelings and trying to deal with them effectively.
    In the reality of life, we may be either unable to afford to go to see a psychologist, or simply too embarrassed to do so…. Here is an app which allows you to evaluate your own weaknesses and help tackle them through art therapy!
    You simply draw pictures in one of the three categories provided in the program, and the levels of your psychological status are instantly analyzed and evaluated. Before counseling on a one-to-one setting between the art therapist and the client, now the Computer Art Therapy System (CATS) can be used as pre-evaluating and analyzing tool.

    Comment by felix andrew on June 22, 2012 at 10:22 am

  8. Computer Art Therapy

    Created for adults and children of all ages, this is an app which is definitely user friendly. Using the bright and vivid colors in the background, users are invited to draw and color pictures freely to express their feelings. The drawings are then analyzed through the CATS to provide a comprehensive assessment of emotions and behaviors.

    The original idea for this program was conceived in 1979 by AAALab (Artificial intelligence, Applied statistics, Art therapy Lab), College of Engineering, Korea University. The program was then created through many years of research and development, with inputs from experts around the world. The CATS has been received with great approval around the world. This app is a complex combination of computer technology, statistical technique, and artificial intelligence.

    If you would like to see what is going on inside your mind and understand your emotions, give it a test drive! Perhaps this app could help you resolve some issues and questions on your own, all from the convenience of your cell phone!

    Comment by felix andrew on June 22, 2012 at 10:23 am