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U.S. med schools move toward animal-free education

Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Two-thirds of all medical schools in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Yale, have eliminated the use of animals for training doctors, replacing the animals with modern, cost-effective and humane alternatives. To date, 85 of 126 U.S. medical schools have discontinued all animal labs in favor of state-of-the-art computer programs, simulators and human surgery observation.

In schools still using animals, the first patient for students will be a dog, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

In lessons involving dogs, the animal is strapped to an operating table and attached to a few basic monitors to track breathing, blood pressure and heart rate. Various common drugs are introduced into the dog's veins to see how its internal organs react.

PCRM says, "The patient might wake up in the middle of this process and cry out in pain, but the operation will continue after a higher dose of anesthesia is hurriedly injected. After several hours, the team will inject a drug that does not help her. In fact, it will stop her heart. The doctors carefully observe the patient's last heartbeat as she dies."

Supporters of these dog labs claim they introduce medical students to practical aspects of their profession. Others say that they merely demonstrate reactions to common drugs that are already known.

Critics point out that there is little transfer of knowledge from dog to human because the entire physical makeup of dogs differs radically from that of humans.

Some hospitals require nurses and other medical staff members to practice the insertion of breathing tubes in kittens and ferrets. As these animals' anatomies are very different from human anatomy, the training is inferior to modern, humane methods such as human cadavers and life-like human models, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine maintains.

Animal rights groups also argue that many of the dogs brought into university medical schools are probably stolen and sold for research. They may have been companion animals before they were acquired by whatever animal dealer sold them to the school.

The University of Colorado's School of Medicine is one of a diminishing number of schools in the country that still kills dogs to teach medical students about human physiology.

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, more than 70 dogs were bought by the University of Colorado Health Science Center during a three-week period beginning in March 2000. PETA claims that the dogs were purchased from a notorious animal dealer who has been convicted of violating the federal Animal Welfare Act.

The Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, which no longer uses animals as teaching tools, said in a statement, "The faculty has determined that the advent of highly sophisticated computer technology has made it possible to train students effectively without the use of live animals."

Philip Militello, an instructor at the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems in Baltimore, Maryland, has taught more than 100 trauma training courses — with dogs and an innovative program using human cadavers and simulators.

He says, "The anatomy of a human cadaver is identical to a patient, while a dog's anatomical landmarks differ. Over the years, it has become clear that students enjoy doing the procedures on a human cadaver specimen because of the identical scenarios, landmarks and hands-on experience. It mirrors the clinical scenario and is very well-received."

Schools in the United Kingdom, the Medical Academy of Warsaw and the University of Poznan in Poland, as well as schools in many other countries around the world, have banned the use of dog labs to train medical students.

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