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Music therapy can have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of patients at the Austin Health’s Olivia Newton John (ONJ) Cancer Wellness & Research Centre, according to Oncology nurse Mona Khajehgani

“The work that [Registered] Music Therapists (RMT) do have a very positive influence on our relationship with the patients,” she says.

“It provides a sense of relief for our patients, which not only creates a safe channel via which they can express so many repressed emotions, but also aids in building a much stronger therapeutic nurse-patient relationship as they allow us into their world to reconnect with happier memories and key moments in their life.”

While the role that a RMT plays in healthcare is beneficial, what is it that they do?

To find out the ANMJ spoke to RMT and the Senior Music Therapist Dr Lucy Forrest, at the Austin Health’s ONJ Centre. Dr Forrest works as a clinician, researcher and educator and has more than 20 years of experience in oncology and palliative care music therapy.

ANMJ: Broadly speaking, what does music therapy entail?

Dr Forrest: Music therapy aims to help people maintain health, wellbeing and functioning through engagement with music. Grounded in research, music therapy is provided by RMTs across a variety of settings including health and aged care, education and in the community. Music therapy programs are tailored to each individual’s needs, and a person does not need to be musical to take part in or benefit from music therapy.

In a music therapy session, a person may actively engage in music making – singing, composing, learning, creating and/or recording music with the therapist; or they may benefit from receptive music therapy approaches such as music relaxation, music and imagery, and music listening.

Music therapy sessions may incorporate both live and recorded music, and include discussion and reflection, and provision of education regarding the use of music to support the person’s health and wellbeing.

ANMJ: How is it used within the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre?

Dr Forrest: We use music therapy in a variety of ways, with programs developed around the individual and changing needs of the patient/family over time.

Some of the reasons we use music therapy include: To support mental health, wellbeing and adjustment; to provide symptom, treatment and emotional support; to enable life review and reflection; and to enable creative expression and personal growth.

ANMJ: What does a traditional workday look like?

Dr Forrest: A typical day can be quite diverse: Each day brings new referrals from the different teams we work with across Oncology, Haematology and Palliative Care. We see adult patients of all ages, from diverse cultural backgrounds and with diverse needs.

Referrals are triaged based on need and my first visits for the day would be to those patients who are distressed or experiencing complex symptoms, new to the ONJ Centre or receiving end-of-life-care: I use live music to facilitate relaxation and help settle and support the patient.

I [also] support patients engaging in expressive and creative projects such as song-writing, recording and legacy creation, or those wanting to learn an instrument, with some sessions being conducted via telehealth for patients who are at home:

My day may also include creating music therapy resources for patients/staff; providing education sessions for nursing and other staff; coordinating the Music Therapy Student Clinical Placement Program; research; and management activities.

Musically, my day is also diverse and might include working with individuals or small groups on the wards or in day clinics. I play a small harp, guitar, piano, drums and sing, and I may play anything from classical music to pop songs, jazz standards, and culturally appropriate music.

ANMJ: What are some of the most rewarding parts of this practice on a day-to-day basis?

Dr Forrest: Working collaboratively with the multi-disciplinary team to help provide the best care for patients and families; and seeing how music can change the day for someone – whether it soothes their fear/anxiety, relaxes and settles them, helps them to rest more comfortably, motivates them to engage in activities that will improve their wellbeing, or allows them to communicate an important message to a loved one.

ANMJ: Similarly, what challenges need to be overcome throughout the workday in order to ensure strong outcomes for patients?

Dr Forrest: Sometimes it is practical things, like creating a quiet and private space for the patient to engage with music therapy, not knowing a particular piece of music that is especially meaningful to the patient/family, [or the patient being so fatigued or unwell that they may not be able to complete a project such as a song they were writing for their family.

It is holding these things in balance with what might be most helpful for the patient/family in this single moment.

ANMJ: How do you see your work interacting with other components of the healthcare experience that the patient has during their time in the ONJ Centre, particularly nursing?

Dr Forrest: Music therapy is a key part of the multi-disciplinary team at the ONJ Centre, and we work closely with nursing and other staff to support the needs of patients and families – and in supporting one another to carry out this work.

When we look at healthcare holistically, and understand how each member of the team can bring different approaches to the overall care of the patient, we can provide individualised care that best meets the needs of the patient and supports their health and wellbeing.

More Information on Austin Health’s Olivia Newton John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre and its Music Therapy team can be found here.