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Supporting Children Living with Chronic Medical Conditions Through Empathetic Art


Empathy has been shown to reduce stress for children coping with healthcare experiences. This descriptive study explored the ability of professional artists to express empathy through paintings created for children with chronic medical conditions. Aims included (1) to artistically describe children with serious chronic medical conditions; (2) to capture the children’s responses to a personal empathetic art piece; (3) to explore the ability of an intervention using the artwork to reduce heart rate and improve children’s present functioning quality of life (QOL); and (4) to determine the meaning of the experience for the artists. This grounded theory study used a mixed methods design that included interview, observation, art making, heart rate, and PedsQL™ Present Functioning VAS. Two artists created paintings for eight children (ages 10–19 years) following a one-time interview. Quantitative measures were taken pre- and post-debriefing/art therapy intervention. Artistic descriptions reflected the children as being more than their chronic medical conditions. Children acknowledged feeling that they had been heard. Reduction in heart rate was statistically significant (p = 0.025, at p < 0.05). PedsQL™ VAS scores indicated a trend toward improved present functioning QOL (p = 0.0667). Study participation was both meaningful and stressful for the artists. Findings support the emergent theory that professional artists who can listen with an empathetic ear and then express empathy through their art can help humanize pediatric healthcare and increase flourishing for children with chronic medical conditions.


  • Empathetic art helped children feel seen, heard, and acknowledged as being more than their chronic medical conditions.

  • Children showed a trend toward improved present functioning quality of life from the experience of being empathized with through paintings created for them.

  • For artists, study participation was both meaningful and stressful.

  • Artists can make significant contributions to psychosocial support for children with chronic medical conditions.

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This work was made possible by The Institute for Integrative Health through support to J.R., an Institute Scholar. We wish also to thank Georgetown University Medical Center, Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital staff for recruitment assistance, and to the young people for their participation.

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Authors and Affiliations



J.R. designed and executed the study, assisted with the data analysis, and wrote the paper. C.R., L.B., and T.S. collaborated with the design, assisted with the data analysis, and wrote part of the results.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Judy Rollins.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

Georgetown University Institutional Review Board approved this study (IRB ID: 2017-0276).

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Informed consent/assent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Rollins, J., Rollins, C., Boocks, L.A. et al. Supporting Children Living with Chronic Medical Conditions Through Empathetic Art. J Child Fam Stud 29, 2218–2233 (2020).

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  • Children with chronic conditions
  • Empathy
  • Art therapy
  • Arts in health
  • Well-being