Using live animals to train students in emergency medical rotations, a long-standing practice at the University of Minnesota Medical School, is being phased out this semester as simulators replace the animals.
The use of live sheep by third- year students practicing emergency procedures came under fire from organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of A nimals (PETA) and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who questioned the necessity of using live animals in a letter to the University on June 8.
The committee said Minnesota was the last accredited medical school in the United States to use live animals to practice these procedures.
The use of live sheep violates the Animal Welfare Act because there are valid alternatives to using the animals, said Dr. John Pippin, senior medical research adviser for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine .
The committee presented the University with a list of simulated alternatives for 13 procedures commonly practiced on sheep.
The school had “markedly curtailed the use of live animals for medical student education in emergency medicine,” Dr. Joseph Clinton, head of the University’s department of emergency medicine, said in an Aug. 27 letter to the committee.
The students “are being taught using simulation models including some of those you cited,” Clinton said in the letter.
However, some students do not think these alternatives are as useful as live animals.
“With the sheep lab, you physically give it to them and it affects something alive,” Susan Pleasants, a third-year medical student, said.
Pleasants’ rotation at the University Medical Center’s emergency room is the first not to practice on sheep.
Students in the Hennepin County Medical Center rotation are the only group this semester who will work with live sheep, she said.
The practice will be phased out for all groups after Dec. 31.
Previously, students spent one day with the sheep, practicing procedures like incubation , inserting chest tubes, needle placement and tracheotomies — a procedure in which an air tube is inserted into the sheep’s windpipe. The sheep were euthanized after the students finished working with it.
In the simulation lab, holes for these procedures are pre-cut, and when students administer doses of drugs the heart speeds up or slows down accordingly, Pleasants said.
Working with simulators is theoretical, because “real medicine doesn’t work in exact calculations,” Pleasants said.
Brenda Olson, a fourth-year medical student who participated in the sheep lab last year, said the experience was “very realistic,” and although sheep and humans may seem different, they are “pretty close, and the veins are the same.”
Dealing with something breathing and moving is different, Olson said. She said the students were more motivated and “worked really hard to keep that sheep alive for four hours.”
“If we let the sheep die no one else would get this opportunity,” she said, referring to other students who worked with the same sheep later that day.
Although students had the choice to opt out of the exercise, Olson said few did and everyone she talked to was grateful for the experience.
She said the group became close to the sheep, “We named it Blue Eyes … we all thanked the sheep when we were done.”
While the animals were an “ideal model,” simulators are improving and are the “pathway of the future,” Clinton said.
He said the removal of sheep from the curriculum was a “budgetary decision more than anything else.” He said he did not consider the decision “absolutely forever” and the school will re-evaluate the decision after this semester.
Although the University Medical School is alone among the 159 accredited U.S. medical schools in its use of live animals in emergency medicine, seven other schools use live animals elsewhere in their curriculum as of Sept. 1, 2009, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
A common practice is using pigs in pathophysiology courses, which occurs at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine .
The University of Minnesota also used pigs in pathophysiology and surgery courses, practices which first prompted the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to contact the University in April 2007, Pippin said. Simulators have since replaced pigs in both courses.
After Dec. 31, no live animals will be used in the Medical School curriculum, although the University will continue using them for research purposes.
Pippin congratulated the University for responding to the committee and removing the sheep from the curriculum. “We think they went about it exactly right,” he said.
Being the only program in the country to use live animals to teach emergency medicine, Pippin said the school has to ask “are we right and everyone else is wrong … or should we look at this anew?”
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