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Music Therapy as an Allied Health Profession

Wed 14 Jul 2021 - Jenny Kirkwood

Jenny Kirkwood has worked as a Music Therapist for 13 years in paediatric and adult learning disability, mental health and paediatric palliative care. From 2016-2019 she managed a team of therapists working in a range of settings across Northern Ireland, and was involved in service development, quality assurance and governance. She has also been involved in research projects into Music Therapy in palliative and end-of-life care with Queen's University Belfast.

Jenny currently works as AHP Coordinator for the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, scoping and reviewing Allied Health Professional services as part of the. Health and Social Care Transformation agenda in Northern Ireland.

The Allied Health Professions are a diverse group of healthcare professions working in different specialist areas in the Health Service. All Allied Health Professions (known collectively as AHPs) register under the umbrella of the HCPC, but they are also a connected and collaborative family of professions who work together and support each other in the development and practice of effective health services. Fourteen professions in total, ranging from Podiatry, Radiography, Orthotics and Dietitians, through Speech and Language Therapy, Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy, to our closest neighbours, Art Therapy and Dramatherapy. It is a hugely diverse range of practices, but we perhaps have more in common than it might seem, not least in a desire to provide effective and efficient healthcare services to the public.

Collaborative working

Engaging with the wider AHP ‘family’ can benefit music therapists in a number of ways. Of course, direct clinical collaboration with, for example, an SLT (Speech and Language Therapist), Physiotherapist, or OT (Occupational Therapist) can lead to improved outcomes for our service users and can be a wonderfully enriching experience for us as practitioners. We can learn a lot from our AHP colleagues, and they from us.

A short-term music therapy intervention with a 6-year-old boy with autism focussed on attention and engagement, emotional regulation and language skills, and at the same time allowed an SLT colleague to begin to integrate PECS symbols into interactions with him as a first step towards (successfully) rolling them out in the classroom for the entire school day.  

A music therapist, music therapy student, and physiotherapy assistants ran a movement to music group for 8 adults attending a day centre for learning disability, integrating tailored plans to increase physical activity while also promoting social interaction among members, group cohesion and overall wellbeing.

We can also come together as colleagues in research, service development, quality improvement, and service reviews. We can work collectively to represent our professions within the wider Health Service, speaking up for each other and for ourselves as a collective group when not all professions can have a seat at the table. And it is important for the development of our own profession that music therapists take up their role within the overall AHP group, to ensure that our voice is heard. The Health Service is a large and complex system. Like a musical composition it has many parts and what is vital is how these individual parts connect and work together. Music therapists are one element in the AHP family, which in turn links with a network of professional groups across the wider system. What is vital is how these elements connect and work together.

What do music therapists themselves bring to the AHP family?

Although we can do much as a collective group, each of the 14 professions is in itself unique. Most have very specific areas of intervention/outcomes – orthoptists for eyes, dietitians for diet and nutrition, and so on. Music, art and dramatherapists are different to the others in being professions that address a very wide range of therapeutic goals (many of which overlap with other AHPs), but which instead are defined by the means by which healthcare support is provided, i.e. in music, art or drama. Many of the transferrable skills that we as music therapists are experts in, and which form the foundations of our training, are desirable to other Allied Health Professions as well:

  • Relationship-based, person-centred practice;
  • Listening and communication
  • Resilience, flexibility and improvisation
  • Attunement, ‘being-with’, reflective practice
  • ‘Holding space’, and sitting in uncertainty
  • Creativity
  • Play

And, of course, we have music.

Ways that Music Therapists can engage with the AHP 'Family'

Each region of the UK has a Chief AHP Officer, and regional AHP groups or teams depending on local structures. Perhaps you could make contact with those close to you (clinically and geographically) and let them know that you are an AHP practicing in their area - especially seek contact with AHPs with whom you share clients in order to establish a multidisciplinary approach.

Take your place in any consultations, AHP service reviews, workforce planning, development of AHP strategies; ask for music therapy to represented in AHP groups where relevant, try where you can to make sure that the voice of the music therapy profession is properly represented within the wider AHP network where you are.

Use AHP strategies and policies to guide and develop your practice, to highlight music therapy as a clinical profession capable of enabling the strategic priorities of the health service to be met.

The Allied Health Professions Federation is an independent body from the NHS which provides collective leadership and representation on common issues which affect its members. Its members are all of the AHP professional bodies, including BAMT, and there are also local bodies such as the AHPFNI and AHPF Scotland.

The Council for AHP Research seeks to develop AHP research and strengthen the professions’ evidence base, and has regional hubs throughout the country.

Use Social Media – Twitter in particular has a lively presence of AHPs and also of local and national AHP groups and Trust teams, and can be an easy way to build engagement with others in your own geographical and clinical areas.

Connections build strength across the health system, and linking with our AHP colleagues will help us as music therapists to work across boundaries and use our skills to contribute to high-quality, patient-centred services throughout the wider health system. We may be smaller in number, but we have a valuable contribution to make - “In dark corners and on edges, that is where gold is found”.