Using live pigs in residency training sparks heated debate


Pigs have been long used in medical schools to teach surgical techniques and, more recently, in research trials and experimental xenotransplantation procedures. But given the rise of alternative simulation technology and mounting pressure from animal rights groups and lawmakers, animal labs for medical training have become less common.

Just last month, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit group with a decades-long stance against the use of animals in medical education and research, placed billboards around the Portland, Ore., area demanding that Oregon Health and Science University stop using pigs to teach surgical residents.

Undergraduate medical programs no longer use live animals. But a small number of graduate medical education programs still use animals, predominantly pigs, to train physicians in subspecialties like internal medicine, emergency medicine, surgery, and anesthesiology, John Pippin, MD, FACC, director of academic affairs at PCRM, told this news organization.

Dr. Pippin says residents practice establishing emergency airways, inserting chest tubes, and accessing blood vessels on anesthetized pigs before euthanizing them.

Swine lab advocates say pigs make ideal training subjects because of their similarities to humans, including comparably sized organs like the heart, lungs, and kidneys. Pigs share about 85% of their DNA with people. Where pig skin alternatives may suffice for less invasive procedures, supporters say residents’ experiences with live tissue are irreplaceable.

In a statement, Sara Hottman, associate director of media relations at Oregon Health and Science University, told this news organization the school “only uses animal models in its surgical training program when nonanimal methods are inadequate or too dangerous for human participants.”

“We believe that the education and experience surgical trainees gain through the use of relevant animal models are essential to ensuring future surgeons have the knowledge and skills necessary to provide safe, high-quality care.”

Ms. Hottman also noted that the university continues to evaluate alternatives and looks forward to when nonanimal “surgical training methods are capable of faithfully modeling the complexity of a living system,” such as in the management of critical internal complications.

But Dr. Pippin argues that residents can gain sufficient expertise through simulators and hands-on training in the operating room, and that the differences between humans and pigs are too vast to provide meaningful clinical data or skills.

“Pigs have different genetic influences and very thick, tough skin,” he said. If you use the same pressure on a human that you learned on a pig, he added, “you’d slice right through the trachea. Whatever you think you find out in animals, you have to learn all over again with humans.”

Undergraduate medical education programs in the United States and Canada abandoned the practice of using live animals, including pigs, by 2016, with Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, last to announce their shift away from the controversial teaching model following campaigns by PCRM.

Today, most residency training programs have followed suit. Pippin said that pediatric residencies no longer use animals, and all trauma and anesthesiology programs have ceased such practices except two. Just 3% of emergency medicine programs continue to use animals, as do about 21% of surgical residencies, he said, based on PCRM’s latest surveys.


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