What Patch Adams Can Tell Us About Music Therapy in Healthcare

I watched the movie Patch Adams again recently. It relates the life of Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams. He was an American physician, comedian, social activist, and author played in the movie by Robin Williams. If you have not watched it, I highly recommend it! Patch Adams basically advocates for a more humanistic way of dealing with patients in healthcare. But what can Patch Adams tell us about music therapy in healthcare? In the movie, Patch is able to make a musical connection with a hard-to-deal-with patient. How is this relevant to music therapy?


In the movie, a patient named Bill causes a lot of trouble to nurses and other staff. Nurses are struggling to connect with him so Patch Adams takes a swing at it. His first attempt is through the song Blue Skies which he softly sings a cappella. His effort is seemingly fruitless so he leaves. Later on he is finally able to connect with Bill and what happens next is what’s curious! Bill is in his last moments about to pass away and asks to see Patch Adams. And what is his very final request? That Patch Adams sings again Blue Skies! The song actually had an impression on Bill after all! So Patch sings the song and Bill’s last moments are spent cradled in music.



So What Does This Mean?

According to the movie, Patch Adams advocated strongly for the treatment of patients as people and not just machines to be fixed. The university he attended taught that there should be a professional distance between the doctor and the patient to remain objective. Patch Adams, on the other hand, argued that the role of a doctor was not only to extend life but to “improve the quality of life.” The way to achieve this was to take an active concern for the patient. This started with the most simple task of referring to patients by their name. But of course, it extended to much more! Patch’s thoughts on music in the movie and in real life are not extensive. Through a quick search, I was only able to find a short article on the real Patch talking about music. In it, the author mentions music in his conversation with Patch:


“Patch told me that he had always wished that he could play an instrument. We found our way through participatory music resonant with his approach to health and wellness through nutrition, love, faith, community, and peace. We were soon lost in song and in stories from Patch’s work around the world.”


Who knows, if Patch Adams could play an instrument maybe he would have been a pioneer in music therapy! Although it is also worth mentioning that in the website of the Gesundheit! Institute, the hospital that was Patch Adam’s vision, there is no mention of music therapy…



Of course, I’m not saying that Patch Adams was a music therapist and he was practicing music therapy (some of you music therapists were already raising your fingers, I know it!). But I think his message is powerful for the music therapy profession. The goal of the healthcare professions should not only be about extending life. In other words, treatments that only address the physical are not enough. I think we have made progress in that regard. Children hospitals like Nationwide Children’s, Cincinnati Children’s, and others, do a great job of crafting an environment that allows kids to still have experiences that foster their emotional health (within what is possible of course). In that sense, music therapy can have a crucial role in improving the quality of life of patients, no matter if they are able to extend their life or not.


Music is an integral part of who we are and it is important that patients still have access to that part of themselves. This is especially true if the patients already had an important connection to music before they were admitted to a hospital. This can be the case of somebody who plays an instrument and upon being admitted to the hospital loses the opportunity to play that instrument.


Music therapy can be an important part of not only extending the life of a patient but improving their quality of life. Patch Adams was a pioneer in an approach to medicine that sought a personal approach to the patient. That is why he can tell us much about the use of music therapy in healthcare. If you have not seen the movie, at Sam’s Fans we highly recommend it!


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L. Samuel Gracida

L. Samuel Gracida

Samuel is Sam's Fans Operating Director and our primary blogger!

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