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Music Therapy in Complex Care

Music therapy is one of the healthcare professionals that a patient might come across during their stay in the hospital, along with encounters with various other healthcare professionals such as doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, social workers, and chaplains. 

According to The National Centre for Complex Health and Social Needs

“Complex care is a person-centered approach to address the needs of people whose combinations of medical, behavioral health, and social challenges result in extreme patterns of healthcare utilization and cost. Complex care works at the individual and systemic levels: it coordinates better care for individuals while reshaping ecosystems of services and healthcare. By better addressing complex needs, complex care can reduce unnecessary spending in both healthcare and social services sectors.” 

In the music therapist’s first meeting with a particular patient in the intensive care unit (ICU), they showed curiosity about music therapy amongst the healthcare professionals on their care team. This person had experienced a cervical spine injury that resulted in paralysis from the neck down. In addition to exploring the patient’s music preferences, they asked for the same two songs to end each session. These songs became an anchor – marking the end of each week. 

When the patient transitioned from the ICU to the (acute) spine unit – the music therapist introduced the possibility of exploring other patient-preferred songs with new messages and themes – symbolic of the patient transition into this new phase of recovery. The patient and therapist established a new/additional anchor song to incorporate into each session – while continuing to include the same two previous songs; acknowledging the complex and multidimensional experience of the recovery process.

After transitioning to the (tertiary) neuro-rehabilitation unit – the patient took the initiative to reach out to their community via social media to request ‘Fight Songs’ (named for the most recent addition to their list of anchor songs) symbolic of this next phase of recovery – where extra motivation and drive “would be crucial.” With support from the music therapist – these songs were compiled into a playlist on the patient’s personal devices and incorporated regularly into the patient’s personal care and therapy routines. At this state in the therapeutic process – the patient expressed a desire to improve their abilities as an “emotional communicator” – and in particular to become more succinct in expressing their feelings and experience to close family members – particularly their spouse. In response – the music therapist introduced the possibility of therapeutic songwriting. The result was a song structured around an existing melody and chord structure that captured his feelings of admiration, affection, and hope to be shared with his spouse. The song was recorded at the patient bedside and shared first as a “gift” for and with the patient’s spouse. The patient and family members’ response to the experience was overwhelmingly positive and emotional. The songwriting exercise marked a moment of observable growth and change in the patients goals toward self-expression.  In the weeks nearing the patient’s discharge – the patient requested an opportunity to explore new music – while still including  their original anchor songs – symbolic of the preparation for this final transition home.

Music therapy was a consistent support throughout his recovery journey – from the ICU, to acute care – to the final and more intensive stages of his inpatient rehabilitation. A number of months after discharge – the patient requested a music therapy session for his birthday. In this follow-up session the patient and spouse expressed a deep appreciation for the role music therapy had played in supporting the patient through the early stages of their injury and long-term hospitalization.

Written by Elaine Cheung, MTA & Jesse Dollimont, MTA


This blog post was written for our #MTOnTheFrontlines series, which will continue to feature many stories from our 30 years on the frontlines of music therapy. Together we will explore the different destinations (positive outcomes), journeys (processes), and the company (our clients)  we have kept along the way.