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University of Colorado Drops Dog Labs from Medical Training

The University of Colorado School of Medicine (CU) has stopped using animal laboratories in its curriculum for medical students. CU is now using computer simulations and analysis of prerecorded responses in the cardiovascular physiology laboratory instead of conducting fatal experiments on dogs—a change that will save the university $17,000 per year. Previously, students or professors would anesthetize dogs, inject them with various drugs to observe effects, and then kill them.

The decision came after more than a decade of efforts by PCRM and others to encourage school to adopt more ehtical methods.

The decision came after more than a decade of efforts by PCRM and others to encourage the school to adopt more ethical methods. In the 1980s, PCRM distributed information on nonanimal teaching methods to CU faculty and students and assisted students who objected to the laboratory exercises. Unfortunately, the university’s coercive policies at that time forced objecting students to participate or risk expulsion, and some students did indeed abandon their medical careers as a result of the university’s policies.

In 1986 and 1993, the American Medical Student Association passed resolutions condemning faculty intimidation of students who wish not to participate in animal laboratories. At PCRM’s request, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder wrote to CU to push them to consider more modern teaching methods. CU refused.

In 1993, PCRM assisted first-year medical student Safia Rubaii in a lawsuit against CU based on her religious and ethical objections to the fatal laboratory exercises. The successful lawsuit won the right for students to use alternatives. Initially, however, CU limited the student-choice policy only to students who had a clear-cut religious objection to killing animals. As time went on, the school began to recognize that a great many students viewed the laboratory exercises as unethical, whether or not their views were based on religious principles. Throughout the following years, many medical students opted out of animal labs in favor of humane methods of study, supported by a national network of PCRM physicians.

Every year, PCRM encouraged CU students and faculty to follow the example of leading schools, such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, that have embraced nonanimal teaching methods. In the spring of 2000, PCRM’s Ray Greek, M.D., visited the campus to educate students and faculty about state-of-the-art, nonanimal techniques used to teach physiology and pharmacology at the majority of U.S. medical schools. PCRM also ran advertisements in CU’s newspaper and radio spots featuring Politically Incorrect’s Bill Maher, and flew airplane banners over a homecoming football game reading “CU: STOP DOG LABS.” That semester, 32 students refused to participate.

Further support came from the vice president and CEO of Denver’s ABC affiliate station, Channel 7, who repeatedly broadcasted an editorial advising viewers that their tax dollars were being used to destroy healthy dogs. “Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford medical schools, along with 70 others, have abolished these labs,” he said. “Stop this unethical practice and bring CU into the 21st Century.”

On the local level, the CU Dog Lab Campaign, led by Dan Hanley, had been working to bring attention to the issue, introducing resolutions to the state legislature, meeting with the Board of Regents, and holding campus vigils. In the spring of 2002, CU again changed its requirements so that students no longer had to sign up to opt out of the animal labs; rather, students had to sign up if they wanted to participate. Next, the renal portion of the dog lab was dropped, followed by the remaining respiratory and cardiovascular portions. Next year, CU will not use a live dog lab at all.

Better Teaching Methods

Medical students dedicate their careers to healing people, and many feel that animal labs detract from the ethical learning experience that is possible with other methods. The first alternatives were computer programs, which offered several advantages over animal labs. They cost just a few hundred dollars per class, required no upkeep, and allowed for multiple use by many students. Students could go over their course material again and again, controlling hundreds of physiological parameters in a virtual reality clinical setting.

In the mid-1990s, Harvard Medical School developed a dynamic alternative practicum, in which students went directly into the operating room alongside the surgeons, perfusionist, and cardiac anesthesiologist to observe an actual human cardiac bypass surgery. They saw the chest opened and the effects of epinephrine and other agents on the heart, and witnessed the patient going on and coming off the cardiopulmonary bypass machine. During this practicum, the cardiac anesthesiologist walked students through the basics of physiology and pharmacology. Students called it “an absolutely amazing experience.”

Early in 2003, physicians, residents, fellows, and medical students held a news conference at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), in protest of its pharmacology exercises using live dogs. In a front-page story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Lawrence Hansen, M.D., UCSD neurosciences professor, explained how the same information can be obtained via CD or DVD, adding that, at a cost of $576 per dog, the labs are a waste of money. Dr. Hansen’s study, published in the journal Academic Medicine, found that just 18 percent of physiology courses and 5 percent of pharmacology courses in U.S. medical schools still use live animals. More than 150 physicians signed a petition to end the practice at UCSD. In the same week, officials at Loma Linda University announced they had dropped dog labs. The University of South Alabama also joined the ranks of schools dropping animal labs, bringing the total number without animal teaching laboratories to nearly 100 of the 126 U.S. medical schools.

At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, third-year surgery clerkships include a lab in which students perform chest tube placement, tracheostomy, and other procedures on anesthetized dogs, who are afterwards euthanized. Studies show these exercises are of little value to a physician’s training. As PCRM president Neal Barnard, M.D., explained in a recent visit to the campus, a 2002 Journal of the American College of Surgeons study showed that when students performed cricothyroidotomy in canines, placement accuracy was low (70 percent). Using human cadaver training brought scores up considerably (96 percent). Another study, reported in Southern Medical Journal, concluded that animal laboratories for laparoscopic cholecystectomy had no measurable effect on surgical speed or complication rates.

Meanwhile, the University of British Columbia Medical School in Vancouver also announced the elimination of the live pig lab from its curriculum, leaving just 4 of 16 Canadian medical schools that have yet to adopt modern teaching standards.

CU has not yet indicated whether its decision to use nonanimal training methods will extend beyond the current year. In a letter to CU Chancellor James Shore, M.D., Dr. Barnard expressed hope and expectation that the change will be permanent.


Summer 2003
Volume XII
Number 3

Good Medicine

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