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The Physicians Committee

End OHSU's Live Animal Lab

This opinion piece was published on Jan. 19, 2008, in The Oregonian.

First, do no harm. That's one of the first lessons medical students are taught. It seems obvious that people who want to become doctors are motivated by a desire to preserve life, but some students are still faced with choosing whether or not to cut into live, anesthetized animals as part of their medical school training.

It's a choice that first-year medical students at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine still have to make.

When I was a student at OHSU in the 1990s, I chose to opt out of the physiology lab, which involved cutting into live dogs who were killed once the course was over. Using and killing these dogs seemed unnecessary and wasteful, and I knew I wanted nothing to do with the lab. I was in school to learn how to help people, not harm animals.

Decades ago, live animals were commonly used in physiology, pharmacology, and surgery classes at medical schools. But times have changed. Only very few medical schools still offer these cruel and outdated programs. OHSU, however, continues to hold on to its live animal lab course and will offer a live pig lab in February.

I am astounded and dismayed that my alma mater still uses animals in its first-year physiology lab. Shouldn't a student's first surgical experience be life-affirming?

As a physician, I know that doctors need to understand physiology and pharmacology. But there is no evidence that live animal labs produce better doctors. In truth, I gained this knowledge in many ways during medical school, without killing animals. And my decision to opt out of OHSU's live animal lab has in no way affected my education or my ability to treat patients.

Most medical schools agree that human-based learning is best, and many stopped using live animals more than a decade ago. Over the past two years,14 schools have ended live animal use. Today, only 10 of the 154 U.S. allopathic and osteopathic medical schools still offer live animal labs.

Students today have far superior options for physiology lessons, such as interactive programmable human patient simulators, which teach human physiology and pharmacology rather than animal responses. Most medical schools involve students in clinics and operating rooms (under close supervision) early in their training. Other proven educational methods include case studies, standardized patient exams and echocardiograms.

Computer programs can be used in place of animals to illustrate the basic principles of physiology and pharmacology that students learn during the first two years of medical education. These programs resemble the screens of monitors commonly found in operating rooms. With the click of a button, students can administer drugs and observe human physiological responses.

Over the last 20 years, medical education has been reformed and improved. Today, killing any animal in the name of medical education is unnecessary and cruel -- and it's substandard. There is no need for OHSU's medical school to hold on to archaic and inhumane teaching methods. It's time for the university to end its live animal labs.

Ole Ersson, M.D., is a 1995 graduate of the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine and a 1998 graduate of its Family Medicine Residency program. He works for the Multnomah County Health Department and lives in Portland.


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