Dr Teddy Barks to the rescue

For the first time in Jamaica, therapy animals will be used to ease anxiety among children who are hospital patients.

Dr Teddy Barks — a golden retriever — is the main animal that will be engaged under the Animal Assisted Recovery and Care (AARC) pilot project to be implemented at Bustamante Hospital for Children in St Andrew, beginning during the Christmas season and lasting for a period of 18 months.

Besides reducing the anxiety and stress associated with hospitalisation the project aims to reduce the length of hospitalisation; decrease the need for pharmacological interventions; and improve the social environment for health-care delivery.

Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton, who made the announcement during a statement in Parliament on Tuesday, said the pilot project “embodies an innovation for Jamaica in public health”.

Gesturing towards the golden retriever, with a red handkerchief tied around its neck quietly sitting in the gallery with its handler, Hope Zoo Curator Joseph Joey Brown, Dr Tufton said the therapy dog has been in training for the last six months and is the project’s brand ambassador.

The health minister noted that the other animals to be included in the pilot are birds, rabbits, and kittens and will participate following a screening process. They will either be drawn from the Jamaica Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (JSPCA), the Hope Zoo or the Montego Bay Animal Haven. Hope Zoo will be responsible for Dr Teddy’s full care and maintenance under the pilot project.

Dr Tufton said animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) are recognised globally as having widespread benefits for both patient and health-care staff. An AAI is defined by the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organisations as “a goal-oriented and structured intervention that intentionally includes or incorporates animals in health, education and human services [for example social work] for the purpose of therapeutic gains in humans”.

He said there is extensive and ongoing research into the role of AAIs in providing complementary healthcare for paediatric patients in the United States. The results underscore that paediatric patients who participate in AAIs experience a reduction in behavioural and psychological distress, less painful distress, lower levels of depression, shorter recovery time, and improved satisfaction with hospitalisation.

Dr Tufton noted that the health ministry through its service delivery arm, the regional health authorities, utilises mainly pharmacotherapy to alleviate patients’ anxiety or other psychological symptoms. However, these interventions do not always effectively manage patients’ total biopsychosocial care.

“Evidence in other jurisdictions outline that animal-assisted recovery and care programmes can be utilised to complement pharmacological interventions, which will lead to improved patient outcomes. The project is a patient-centred intervention that will complement health-care delivery to hospitalised paediatric patients undergoing procedures or who require long-term hospitalisation,” he said.

Turning to safety measures, Dr Tufton said that Bustamante Hospital for Children has been assessed to ensure safe and effective interactions between the patients, and that risk-mitigation strategies will be guided by a policy and procedural guideline document that was developed to outline the contingent actions for the safe implementation of the AARC pilot.

“The document was created in collaboration with representatives from diverse disciplines including epidemiology, veterinary, human medicine and health-care administration and covers several areas including, but not limited to policies and procedural guidelines on patient suitability, infection control and visitation protocols,” he said.

He noted that for paediatric patients to participate in the pilot they should meet the patient inclusion criteria as detailed in the document; and prior to participation the consent of the parent or guardian must be obtained.

“The policy and procedural guidelines also outline various procedures that will be utilised to provide for the safety of the animals, patients, visitors, and employees involved in the animal-assisted recovery and care pilot project,” he said.

Dr Tufton said that the hospital has in place established infection, prevention and control protocols and the project will be implemented in keeping with these protocols. In the event that there is increased admissions of children, overcrowding and/or an outbreak of a communicable disease, implementation will be suspended.

He said that the South East Regional Health Authority (SERHA) will oversee the implementation of the project while a multi-sectoral AAI committee has been convened to provide technical coordination and support.

“That committee will monitor and evaluate the project to include animal handler compliance and animal welfare. The committee includes representatives from the Veterinary Services Division; Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries; JSPCA; Montego Bay Animal Haven; Hope Zoo; representatives from SERHA; and the Ministry of Health and Wellness,” he said.

Dr Tufton said evaluations will be done at six-month intervals and a monitoring and evaluation framework has been developed to determine whether the pilot is successful.

“If it is successful, a Cabinet submission will be made seeking approval for the development of an AARC programme in public health facilities islandwide,” he said.

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