Breathing creativity into every corner of clinical treatment

Breathe Arts Health Research had very humble beginnings. When we spun out of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Charity in 2012, we had little more than a big vision and the genesis of exciting ideas to establish the arts and creativity as part of mainstream healthcare programmes.

Through an unfailing belief in our principles and consistent hard work we have built Breathe into an award-winning, not-for-profit social enterprise that is recognised and commissioned by the NHS as an official service provider, and is responsible for the largest performing arts programme in any hospital in the UK. We are working on instilling a long-term approach to creativity and the arts as part of clinical treatment.

We’ve come a long way.

Alongside our Breathe Magic programme – more on that later – we deliver free weekly performances in public spaces across Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital and take music into the most clinical of hospital spaces. We are also responsible for a series of poetry, creative writing and theatre projects across London hospitals. In total, we run about 1,300 activities a year all designed to make hospital environments better for patients and staff.

While I am immensely proud of our growth so far, Breathe’s success is also an important seal of approval for the value of creativity in healthcare more generally.

Nothing embodies this more than Breathe Magic. During our 10-day intensive magic therapy programmes, young people with hemiplegia (a weakness/paralysis affecting one side of the body) receive over 60-hours of effective, engaging therapy from occupational therapists working alongside Magic Circle Magicians. The exercises they practice through the tricks are deliberately designed to translate into the everyday activities with which they might struggle, like using a knife and fork and getting dressed independently.

At the end of 10 days the young people perform a magic show to friends and family. But, the real magic is that, while they have been busy becoming young magicians, our participants have been strengthening their hand and arm functions on the affected side of their bodies and find themselves able to do many more daily activities independently.

I have just spent the morning at a pilot Breathe Magic is running for adult stroke patients (in addition, we have recently run another pilot for teenagers with severe mental health problems) and met a man who, for the first time in years, used his hand on his affected side of his body to perform a card shuffle! Another example of how magic is making things that seem impossible, become possible.

"We’re working at the commissioned, and commissioning, end of healthcare programmes. This is game changing for us."

By integrating vigorous research and impressive results Breathe Magic has won rolling NHS contracts with two London boroughs – Lambeth and Wandsworth. This means patients can now be referred by their GP directly to our programme.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have also recently won contracts from King’s College and NHS Gloucestershire to consult on their commissioning of creative healthcare projects. We are now working at the commissioned, and commissioning, end of healthcare programmes. This is game changing for us.

Our approach has won some fantastic awards. Most recently, and to joyous shouts, it was announced that we had won the inaugural “Innovation in Lambeth” prize from the borough’s NHS Clinical Commissioning Group. I am delighted that this was recognition of our work across the board – Breathe Magic and the performing arts programme – and highlighted our the innovative approach to healthcare.


As well as being recognized as one of 50 New Radicals by Nesta & The Observer in 2014, we were also highly commended at the WellChild Awards in 2013 and shortlisted in the top three organisations nationally at the Positive Practice Mental Health Awards.

Running Breathe is interesting, rewarding and challenging. I believe our success is down to hard work, an awful lot of resilience and the continual nurturing of important relationships.

Being surrounded by wonderful, talented people makes everything possible – and the working day that bit more fun. Nothing that Breathe does would be possible without the vast array of skills and personalities within our team.

Keeping long-term projects on the road is a constant challenge as funders are always looking for new innovations. We have deliberately worked on the same ventures, around the same principles, because we believe in them, and we want them to be taken up as mainstream healthcare services, rather than passing projects that only benefit a few. I am certain that sticking to our guns is the secret to our on-going success.

Breathe is at the centre of the movement pioneering creativity as a cornerstone of treatment programmes across the UK. I am continually excited about where this might take us.

Yvonne Farquharson is the Managing Director of Breathe Arts Health Research

Images courtesy of Breathe Arts Health Research


Part of
New Radicals


Yvonne Farquharson

Yvonne is the Managing Director of Breathe Arts Health Research.