SBB Spotlight: Alex Bradbury

“If a health professional says this arts activity is important for your condition, it validates patients’ social needs. It empowers them.”

Lucy Nicholls

19 May 2023

Alex Bradbury is a Research Programmes Manager and Fellow here at the Social Biobehavioural Research Group. She is currently working on a range of projects including an implementation manual to accompany our large social prescribing study with children and young people, an article on the determinants of arts engagement, and a qualitative analysis of the implementation of singing groups for postnatal depression. We spoke to Alex about her work with the team, her part-time master’s in business, as well as her views on how the arts have been integrated into conversations on global health policy

Q: How did you arrive in the field of arts and health?

AB: I had a similar research coordination and communications role in the USA at Harvard Medical School, but our team focused on infectious disease epidemiology and global health. I then moved to the UK to do a masters in medical history and before graduating I came across Daisy’s work. It sparked an interest I had as an undergraduate which was in mind, brain and behavioural studies and the relationship between health and aesthetics. I was particularly interested in how healthy environments and beauty could be incorporated into global health policy. So the subject matter of the role really appealed to me. I started my role in September 2020. To me the arts are about removing health inequalities, which is what I care about most.   

Q: Have you noticed significant changes in the arts and global health policy conversations since joining the team? 

AB: I think so. It’s interesting to see the conversation picking up. For example, our team was designated a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Arts and Health. And global health groups I used to work for have also started to prioritise arts and health. I think previously there was this view that arts and health is something for more resourced health systems or is less common in lower- or middle-income countries. But I think there’s now this realisation that arts and health as a concept and as a health intervention is so important. Particularly in managing mental health which is increasingly on the agenda in every country in terms of global health policy. 

But there’s a long way to go to incorporate the arts into healthcare. That’s why the team’s work is so important because we need to know more about the science behind arts engagement and its influence on health to properly integrate it with health systems. 

Q: With arts and health entering more and more into mainstream media, do you think it’s being embraced positively or with some scepticism? 

AB: I don’t know about scepticism, but I think this illustrates the importance of science communication. There’s a lot to be excited about in the field of arts and health, particularly as our team is leading the way in applying multiple approaches to really understand how the arts impact our health. Perhaps some might think the positive wellbeing effects of the arts are obvious, but the hard part is building the evidence base for this and that’s what our team is doing through multiple methodologies including clinical trials and implementation science, epidemiology, behavioural science, and complexity science.  

And we need to think about how different groups can benefit from this knowledge—be that policymakers, the public, clinicians or others—and make our evidence meaningful for them. Our work is relatable to everyone. I personally see examples of things like social prescribing in my everyday life. For example, my uncle, who sadly just passed away from cancer, joined a beekeeping group whilst he was on treatment. It helped his mental health, he made loads of new friends, and he became well-known in his community. Imagine if that had all been paid for or at least facilitated by his health service. His beekeeping saw him through his toughest times.

Many people feel they don’t have the time, resources or support to engage in the arts or social activities. If these are offered through a healthcare context, this can be life-changing. Whilst the arts are valuable in their own right, if a health professional says this arts activity is important for your condition, it validates patients’ social needs. It empowers them. 

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your master’s? What sort of things are you doing on your MBA? 

AB: It’s an MBA focused on healthcare at UCL. Some modules are like a general MBA such as strategy, human resources, and marketing, but others are health focused. For example, we’ll be advising clients in low- and middle-income countries on a global health project. We also look at major trends in healthcare such as data-driven health systems, artificial intelligence, and health system strengthening. I’m learning a lot about how the corporate world is responding to sustainability, the governance and ethical issues involved, and how organisations are increasingly incorporating sustainability into their business models rather than just engaging in a bit of traditional corporate social responsibility. I see a lot of overlap between behavioural science and organisational management and I’m hopeful that eventually I’ll be able to bring together everything I’ve learnt in my job and studies to work on some really exciting projects.    

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of arts and health today? 

AB: I suppose my main questions for experts in this area are, “What are our goals? What are we trying to achieve?” I think a clearer articulation of a mission would help bring people together across disciplines and industries. Another question is how should we structure roles within this field? Research and practice in arts and health requires partnerships and multidisciplinary connections but in reality people’s jobs fall within a particular area, with certain expectations, career ladders, and motivations. One person is an academic, another is a clinician, another is an arts producer, and each individual will always be motivated by the thing that’s going to reward them in that sector. We need to make more interdisciplinary jobs where you’re not necessarily an expert in one thing but a generalist who is able to bring everyone together. Our jobs can create silos of knowledge but if we can create facilitator roles where people are able to move between these groups that would be amazing.  

Q: What interests or hobbies do you have? 

AB: I used to paint quite a bit and draw. I also played the piano and cello and I really want to start dancing. I think I rely on music a lot; I listen to it all day and it helps me with concentration and mood regulation. Last year I started gardening a little bit but I’m only just managing to keep everything alive so that’s still a work in progress. 

Alex is on Twitter and LinkedIn.