Ground-breaking research into end-of-life care

A unique study based in Belfast is examining whether music therapy should be used to ease the pain, fear and isolation of people with terminal illness.

The research is being carried out by the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Queen’s University in collaboration with Marie Curie Belfast Hospice and Every Day Harmony.

Every Day Harmony’s Chief Executive, Ciara Reilly, said: “While there is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence that music therapy can play an important role in palliative care, there’s not enough scientific evidence to convince healthcare commissioners and practitioners that it’s a valuable treatment option that deserves funding at a time when budgets are stretched. We aim to provide robust scientific evidence that music gives people a voice when words fail them at the end of their lives.”

The study, which is being conducted by Queen’s University’s Dr Joanne Reid and Dr Tracey McConnell, together with Prof Sam Porter of Bournemouth University, will focus on 52 palliative care patients at the Marie Curie Hospice. Around half will receive a three-week programme of music therapy in addition to standard care. The other half will receive standard palliative care. The music therapy will be offered twice weekly.

The research aims to determine the feasibility of carrying out a much larger study.

Lisa Graham-Wisener of Marie Curie Hospice said: “Marie Curie is committed to providing “holistic” palliative care to patients and their families. Research on music therapy in palliative care settings has demonstrated some promising findings in terms of improving a patient’s quality of life, that is, their social, physical, spiritual and psychological well-being. We hope to build on this work and continue to develop evidence-based care with our collaboration with QUB and Every Day Harmony.”

QUB’s Dr Tracey McConnell said: “We carried out a review of all the research to date on music therapy for improving palliative care and found that music therapy significantly reduces the level of pain experienced by palliative care patients. Our current study aims to set the foundation for a larger multi-site study in the future, with the aim of adding to the evidence base in relation to music therapy’s effectiveness for improving palliative care.”

Music Therapy Manager Jenny Kirkwood of Every Day Harmony, who works with the hospice, said: “People don’t need to have any musical skills to benefit from music therapy. It’s not about being able to play an instrument. It’s about making a connection and enabling people to communicate. Sometimes, when something is impossible to express in words, music helps people “talk” about how they’re feeling.

“We all relate to music, because it connects us with what it means to be human. Our bodies work to rhythms – everything from our heartbeat to our sleep patterns. Songs can evoke powerful memories. Even the way we speak has some of the tones, rhythm and structure of music.”

A previous study by the same QUB research team and Every Day Harmony – the largest study of its kind in the world – found that music therapy was effective in reducing depression and improving communication in children and adolescents with mental health problems.

Marie Curie Physiotherapist Kerry McGrillen and Music Therapist Naomi Hughes tune up in the grounds of the hospice.

Marie Curie Physiotherapist Kerry McGrillen and Music Therapist Naomi Hughes tune up in the grounds of the hospice.