Healthcare News & Insights

Animal therapy can help doctors & nurses, too

Animal therapy has proved beneficial for the recovery of hospital patients. But its benefits don’t end there. Using furry friends for therapy can help doctors and nurses relieve stress and fight burnout. 

ThinkstockPhotos-86521966An article from ABC News describes an animal therapy program from Rush University Medical Center that’s focused on helping clinical staff.

In the Pet Pause program, dogs from an animal therapy group and a local shelter visit the hospital once a month. Doctors and nurses can pet and engage with the animals.

Employees from other kinds of workplaces have reported lower stress, more satisfaction and higher productivity when they’re visited by dogs at the office. Spending time with animals can also lower blood pressure, stress hormones and heart rate.

Rush University Medical Center is currently conducting research to get hard data on how well its Pet Pause program works for clinicians. Doctors and nurses get blood pressure readings before and after visiting with the dogs, and they also rate their stress levels before and after each session.

Anecdotally, most staff at the hospital say interacting with the dogs makes them feel more relaxed. And some show physical signs of lowered stress. In one case, a nurse’s blood pressure dropped by 10 points after the session ended.

Other hospitals have tried similar programs to much success. The Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania has a “pet a pooch” program where clinical staff can interact with dogs from local animal shelters for a few hours each month. Cats occasionally make an appearance, as well.

Both humans and dogs have benefited from this program. Since it was started three years ago, hospital staff at Penn have adopted over a dozen dogs from the shelter.

Guidance for programs

Animal therapy for hospital workers is a relatively new concept, but with rates of burnout skyrocketing for doctors and nurses, it’s one that’s worth exploring.

If you do decide to bring animals into your hospital, it’s key to follow the appropriate guidelines to reduce the risk of infection or injury. The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) has recommendations for handling animal-therapy programs.

Specifically, hospitals should have written policies for pet therapy that discuss what kinds of animals are allowed onsite, and what’s required to participate (e.g., signed waivers).

All animals should be formally evaluated beforehand, and contact should be restricted only to those who want to participate. Facilities should keep records of which animals visited, just in case any issues arise.

SHEA recommends that only dogs visit healthcare facilities. More people have allergies to cats, and their behavior is also more unpredictable than dogs. Other animals are harder to control. However, each facility must use its own discretion if the animals won’t come into contact with patients.

Regardless of whether the animals are pooches, felines or llamas, any staff member who makes contact with an animal during an animal-therapy session should practice proper hand hygiene both before and after contact.

Following these guidelines can make animal therapy a safe, relaxing way for your doctors and nurses to unwind after a stressful day.

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