The waiting rooms at Northwest Community Healthcare's Medical Group office in Arlington Heights are more cheerful these days as patients enjoy visits from dogs in NCH's Animal-Assisted Therapy program.
While NCH's therapy dogs have been visiting patients at the hospital in Arlington Heights since 2007, the friendly canines are making their first appearances at NCH Medical Group physician offices at 1051 W. Rand Road in Arlington Heights. NCH is planning to expand the program to its doctor's offices in Buffalo Grove, Mount Prospect and Schaumburg.
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"The patients' faces light up when the therapy dogs make a visit to the waiting room," said Diane Ryzner, an advanced practice nurse who helped expand the program. "The dogs put their minds at ease and make the wait a lot more enjoyable. Patients simply love the dogs."
Patient Mary Pinski visited with "Lucy" the therapy dog in the waiting room on a recent morning.
"The best thing was that the climate in the waiting room was one of joy, rather than one of pain and fear," Pinski said. "Bringing therapy dogs into the waiting room is a service that should be expanded."
Pinski related a story common among NCH patients: A loving dog can assist in reducing a patient's stress, pain, anxiety and loneliness. Interaction between patients and pets can raise a person's spirits and improve their health by lowering blood pressure and accelerating recovery times.
In 2012, the hospital's 69 therapy dogs and their handlers made 13,167 patient visits. Since the program's inception in 2007, therapy dogs have made nearly 54,000 patient visits in all areas of the hospital except the emergency department.
The NCH Medical Group is looking to expand the use of therapy dogs. The Animal-Assisted Therapy program is accepting applications for teams, which consist of a dog and its handler, who must be the owner of the pet and at least 18 years old. Therapy dogs can be any breed, must be in good health, obedient, enjoy people and get along with other dogs.
Qualifying dogs go through a two-hour temperament and obedience evaluation by professional dog trainers. Teams that pass will attend a three-day training course at the hospital that includes mock and trainer-supervised patient visits, and a briefing on hospital policies and infection control practices.
NCH Medical Group treats approximately 60,000 patients each year. The practice has 68 doctors.