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"[H]uman interaction is not value-added, and might be slightly detrimental."

January 9, 2006 -- An Associated Press piece headlined "Study: Alone time with dogs helps seniors," which reported on research by nurse Marian Banks and physician William Banks, ran today in The Press (Atlantic City). Cheryl Wittenauer's AP article also appeared in other papers, and the story got network television coverage. The AP piece reports on a study to be published in the March 2006 issue of Anthrozoos, a journal focusing on the "interactions of people and animals." The study found that nursing home residents "felt much less lonely after spending time alone with a dog than when other people joined in the visit." We commend Ms. Wittenauer and the AP for covering this research, and giving Marian Banks significant attention in the piece. The story raises interesting issues about the differences in media attention to medical and nursing research--including the piece's reference (in accord with "AP style") to only the physician as "Dr. Banks," even though Marian Banks has a doctorate as well.

The AP story notes that the Banks's study found that the loneliness of residents of St. Louis nursing homes who got one-on-one visits with a dog visitor "decreased substantially," but the residents who shared their dog visits with several other residents felt only slightly less lonely. The piece reports that residents "shared their problems and story in 'intimate conversations' with the visiting dog." The first four quotes in the piece go to "Dr. William Banks of Saint Louis University, who co-authored the study with his wife, Marian Banks, a postdoctoral fellow in nursing at Washington University at the time." Of course, we are aware of no principled reason to refer to someone with a medical doctorate as "Dr.," but not do so for a nurse with a doctorate. We also note the choice to list William Banks first, then include the description "his wife" before Marian Banks's name or her work background, as if the most important thing about her for the purpose of the piece is that she's married to William. In any case, after this initial reference, neither researcher is identified with an honorific, though as noted, William Banks does get the first four quoted sentences in the piece. William Banks calls the solo dog visit finding "pretty surprising," and he suggests, in a priceless observation, that "human interaction is not value-added, and might be slightly detrimental." That has sometimes been our experience as nursing advocates as well.

The remainder of the piece gives Marian Banks a lot of attention for her work on this study and past research in the field. That is commendable, and also tends to suggest that the most important thing about her for purposes of this piece might not be that she's William Banks's wife. The piece notes that an "earlier phase" of the study "conducted by Marian Banks" in 1997 found that nursing home residents who got one to three dog visits per week had substantial decreases in loneliness "as measured in a psychological test instrument known as the UCLA loneliness scale." The report notes that the "next phase" of the study, to be done at St. Louis University, will measure "whether robotic dogs popular in Japan have a similar effect on lonely seniors." According to the piece, Marian Banks notes that a Japanese study "showed that the robotic dog, Aibo, elicited smiles from Alzheimer's patients." The piece then goes into the specific dogs that Marian Banks uses for the studies. For the 1997 study she used an "academic mentor's golden retriever," but for the second and third phases she's used "Sparky, a mixed-breed dog she found four years ago in the alley behind her house." She notes that she adopted and trained Sparky, who "sits next to nursing home residents on their bed, listens to their stories, and lets them groom him." The piece includes a photo of Banks and Sparky at home. Banks says that in the nursing homes Sparky "sits there very nonjudgmental...When [residents] go to a nursing home, they lose all their possessions. They need to belong, love and be accepted. The dog gives unconditional love. They say the most incredible things in the presence of a dog."

The story tells the public about key nursing research. And taken as whole, it does give the impression that Marian Banks is the driving force behind the work. Of course, given the subject matter and prevailing assumptions about nursing, some readers might not take Marian Banks's role in sending her dog into nursing homes particularly seriously. So it might have been helpful to explain a little more about why loneliness matters, for instance, whether it can be a factor in patient outcomes and overall wellbeing. Even so, the piece certainly includes elements that suggest Marian Banks is a serious health professional, including the references to her academic career, and the descriptions of her prior and ongoing research.

One interesting issue the piece raises is what effect the fact that the research was conducted by a nurse and a physician may have on the attention it receives from the media, beyond the specific differences evident in this piece. In general, would the work of a nursing scholar get the same media attention and respect if it was not also linked to a physician? Would it be different if the nurse was not married to the physician? If the nurse was male and the physician female? On the other hand, in the absence of the physician, whatever attention the research did get would of course center more on the nurse. For instance, the nurse would presumably be more likely to be the source for the first four quotes in the piece.

We thank Ms. Wittenauer and the AP for reporting on this important research.

See the article "Alone time with dogs helps seniors" by Cheryl Wittenauer in the January 9th edition of The Press.

 

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