In a triumph for a non-profit fighting the use of live animals in medical training, the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Chattanooga – the last holdout in the nation – announced that it is abandoning the practice.
John Pippin, director of academic affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, says live pigs under anesthesia were used for Chattanooga medical students to practice surgical procedures; when the exercise was done, the animals were euthanized. “Chattanooga was extremely resistant” to giving up the practice, he says. “They found themselves in a corner. I firmly believe they would not have done this if they had not been concerned about the blowback of being the last program.”
When the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine was founded in 1985 to promote ethical research and education practices, such “fatal training labs” were used at 87 percent of U.S. medical schools. At the time, the test subjects were most often dogs. Over the years, advanced simulators that allow students to learn hands-on surgical procedures have gradually replaced the live animal labs. According to the Physicians Committee, none of the 44 surveyed medical schools that have opened in the U.S. since 1979 have used animals to train students.
The UT College of Medicine in Chattanooga, part of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center headquartered in Memphis, is located with the Erlanger Health System Baroness Hospital campus. The UTHSC College of Medicine has four locations, including the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, which stopped using live animals in surgical training years ago. UT Knoxville now hosts the Center for Advanced Medical Simulation, which is helping Chattanooga develop simulations to replace its live animal labs.
When prestigious Johns Hopkins University agreed to give up the practice this spring in exchange for Maryland legislators withdrawing a bill that would have required the change, the UT College of Medicine in Chattanooga found itself alone. (The Physicians Committee conducted a huge campaign with petitions, protests and public transit ads pressuring Johns Hopkins before it capitulated.)
Soon afterward, Chattanooga college faculty, the UTHSC leadership in Memphis, and the university system conducted a rapid review of a Hopkins study supporting the use of simulations instead, and Interim Dean Robert Fore announced that Chattanooga would switch to simulations, too. He declines to confirm what type of animals had been used at the college, saying it “wasn’t relevant,” and he says he doesn’t think Johns Hopkins’ decision to stop using animals was a major influence.
Pippin disagrees. He says he and the Physicians Committee had been pressuring the Chattanooga college since 2006 to give up killing animals in training, gaining no traction until the Johns Hopkins decision. After that, an online petition demanding Chattanooga give up using animals garnered almost 31,600 signatures.
Despite the universal movement away from the use of animals, Fore says “there’s a lot of disagreement among physicians” about the value of the practice. He says the majority of Chattanooga medical students preferred using animals. “Students generally were disappointed,” he says. “Using animal models gives them the opportunity to learn skills on a live subject.”
Pippin, a retired academic cardiologist who did research on animals himself early in his career, says there is no evidence in medical literature to support the idea that using living animal tissue provides better training than using simulators. “Because of anatomical differences, this was not good training and did not transfer well to people,” he says. Plus, he says, “We didn’t want med students to get the message that they have to kill their first patients in order to learn.”
Simulators available today aren’t just computers. There are physical models that can mimic breathing, coughing, and blood pressure while medical students perform routine procedures like clearing a surgical airway and removing fluid from around the heart, and unusual ones like crisis infant delivery.
The Physicians Committee hasn’t worked itself out of a job. Some emergency medicine residency programs still use animals in training, and the committee also advocates for nutrition to play a larger role in disease prevention and treatment.
S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at email@example.com
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