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The Daily Tar Heel

Man’s best medical friend?

In November 2010, a clinical trial reported that yearly CT scans in current and former heavy smokers can reduce the risk of death from lung cancer by 20 percent.

But despite looming concerns about the test’s inflated benefits and under-publicized harms, many have heralded a new era in cancer screening. Some, including the Duke Cancer Institute, have even started inviting patients to get a yearly chest CT.

Just a year after the CT study, however, a group of canines showed that they could match the machines. Some researchers in Germany set out to prove that dogs could detect cancer. They trained four dogs — two German shepherds, a Labrador and an Australian shepherd — to sniff out markers of lung cancer in patients’ breath.

It is hard to imagine an army of cancer-sniffing dogs taking over for CT scanners — nature’s solutions just aren’t as sexy as technology.

There’s no doubt that technology will bring us great things in the future. But are we foolishly passing over the less glamorous solutions available to us now?

Though it’s probably for good reason that we haven’t yet awarded any Nobel Prizes to cancer-screening canines, it might be equally as foolish to trust iPhone’s Siri to diagnose appendicitis. And yet the former proposition seems outlandish, while the latter is “innovative.”

It’s hard to discount the countless lives saved by low-tech tools like mosquito nets for malaria and oral rehydration salts for diarrheal disease. But what about the United States? We might not have to look any further than man’s best friend for simple solutions to some of our ills.

While far from conclusive, there is research suggesting that dogs help fight obesity by inspiring owners to exercise. Some studies have also shown that dogs mitigate symptoms of depression in certain groups of elderly and sick.

In hospitals, dog visitation reduces the amount of pain that children report during uncomfortable procedures and decrease levels of stress hormones for patients in heart failure. For these reasons, along with the general good cheer they bring, dogs are popular visitors on hospital wards.

The benefits of canines are not limited to the ill. Last year, the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication brought in therapy dogs to calm exam-week nerves.

Many schools have done the same, providing students with much-needed stress relief at a bargain price — the University of Connecticut’s program only costs about $200 a year.

Despite their potentially cost-effective benefits on mood and anxiety, dogs aren’t a cure-all for America’s health problems. Furthermore, more research needs to fill holes in the evidence before doctors start “prescribing” dogs regularly.

But in a country facing a massive debt and rising health care costs, dogs might be the perfect representative for thinking outside the box for health solutions without looking to high-cost technology.

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