May 24, 2011

Music with my therapy

I like walking the halls of my hospital because the walls are full of information. Signs about services offered, support group meetings, hospital policies, research done and research being done punctuate the hospital like needle pricks on a cancer patient.

The walls showed me one day that I could take part in a music therapy study.

Calling all patients

The study required me to write a song, about anything, and answer a bunch of surveys along the way to see how the act of song writing may improve my wellbeing.

The music therapist leading the study is one of the most energetic and caring people I have met. She is a true healer: you can see it in her eyes and hear it when she sings.

Because she is such a nice person, just hanging out with her could make me feel better about life. And so the study needed to also work out whether the song writing itself has an effect over and above that of the nice therapist.

The randomised control trial (RCT)

The RCT is the backbone of health research. It is the thing doctors ask for when people say "my red crystal healed my tumour". The RCT produces evidence that the factor you measured was actually the factor being measured.

In a nutshell a RCT is based on groups that are selected randomly (the R) to receive something (a drug, song writing session, haircut). The other important part of an RCT (the C) is that some groups do not get the drug, song writing session or haircut.

I nominated to take part in the trial (for non-human animals you just reach into the cage and pull one out) which means there may be something about me and my personality that could affect the study. Maybe I am really musical? Maybe I have written songs before? Maybe my (healthy) obsession with Britney Spears means music will more easily boost my immune system?

The song-writing group got to spend three sessions with the music therapist writing a song. During this time they also listened to guitar, sung, and laughed and cried. These things may improve patient wellbeing. To work out if actually writing a song helps, you need a group that has all those things, but without the song writing. This was the control group.

I went into the experiment wanting music therapy and this desire has the potential to influence the outcomes of the study. So whether I got to write a song or be a control (ie. do nothing) needed to be decided randomly.

I was randomly allocated to the control group

The music therapist didn't know which group I would be in. She was handed an anonymous envelope by one of her assistants that would never meet me or learn my name. The assistant had used a computer to allocate me an ID number and group. The therapist handed me the envelope unopened. I had to open it in front of her and inside it gave me a number and a group. These may sound like CIA protocols, but they are all needed to control bias and ensure that song writing is actually the thing being measured.

So, I sat with the music therapist over three different days. We had instruments in the room and she played these sometimes. We talked about cancer and life but we didn't write a song or talk about song writing.

After the study was complete, I still got to write a song anyway

I got to do this because she believes in the ability of music to heal. Her bias is an example of why the CIA protocols are necessary and how a control group that doesnt write songs accommodates for that.

The song is called 'Ben be brave' and was recorded. It will appear on this blog soon.

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