The value of music therapy for those living with terminal illness

An innovative research project in our Belfast Hospice seeks to better understand the benefits of music therapy. Craig Harrison, our Policy and Public Affairs Officer for Northern Ireland, explains what we've learned.

Staff from Marie Curie and Everyday Harmony pose with other conference attendees
Marie Curie and Every Day Harmony attended the conference along with other stakeholders

Everyone living with terminal illness has the right to high quality care and support, yet in Northern Ireland one in four people needing this care aren’t currently accessing it.

With a rapidly aging population, and a death rate projected to rise faster than anywhere else in the UK over the next two decades, we must act now to prevent the situation from worsening.

Allied Health Professions are health care professions that support nursing, medicine and pharmacy, to provide quality care - such as podiatry, osteopathy, speech and music therapy. These professions have an important role to play in providing holistic care and support to those living with terminal illness. Research on music therapy in particular has shown positive results in terms of improving quality of life for people living with terminal illness, although greater evidence is needed to assess its true impact.

To address this research gap, Marie Curie collaborated with Queen’s University Belfast and local music therapy organisation Every Day Harmony, to run a pilot study in our Belfast Hospice. Over the last year, trained music therapists were brought into the Hospice to deliver music therapy sessions with our patients.

We presented the findings from the research at a policy seminar on 12 October. Held in Stormont, the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the event brought together a wide range of stakeholder groups, departmental officials, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and health and social care representatives to explore the hidden value of music therapy for people living with a terminal illness.

Guests heard from Lisa Graham-Wisener, Research Lead at Marie Curie Northern Ireland, and Dr Tracey McConnell, Post-doctoral Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. They said:

Lisa Graham-Wisener, Marie Curie research lead for Northern Ireland
Lisa Graham-Wisener, Research Lead for Marie Curie Northern Ireland

“This study is an important first step towards providing rigorous evidence of the impact of music therapy on quality of life in palliative and end of life care, with promising findings in improving psychological symptoms and meaningful existence in particular. We hope in the near future that findings from our work will usefully inform a large high-quality trial in this area involving a number of hospices across the UK.” 

Jenny Kirkwood and Conall Dunlop, both of Every Day Harmony, discussed the benefits of music therapy in the palliative care context. They said:

“Music therapy marries our human response to, and love of, music as a medium for communication and expression with the skills of a trained therapist in order to bring tangible health and wellbeing benefits. In palliative care, patients’ quality of life is paramount, and music therapy can support this in its broadest sense by harnessing the motivating and engaging power of music to support each individual’s psychological, emotional and physical needs.”

Conall Dunlop from Every Day Harmony
Conall Dunlop from Every Day Harmony

Grace Watts, Development Director at the British Association for Music Therapy, discussed how music therapy is being used in palliative care settings in other parts of the UK. She said:

“What today’s event has revealed so powerfully is the value music therapy and music therapists can bring to palliative and end of life care. It strengthens the call for the integration and coordination of services across the UK, for the approach to palliative and end of life to be creative and holistic, and for Allied Health Professionals, such as music therapists, to be valued for their skills and the contribution they can make towards ensuring that quality of life is central in the delivery of palliative and end of life care during one of life’s most significant moments.”

Another creative musical project has  been taking place in our Bradford Hospice, where musician and songwriter Ben Slack is helping people living with a terminal illness to compose songs about their lives.