Frequently Asked Questions: Animal Use in Medical School Education

The Physicians Committee

Frequently Asked Questions: Animal Use in Medical School Education


Q: Isn’t using animals to teach medical students about anatomy, physiology, surgery, and other topics a widely accepted and routinely used method?

A: No. Beginning in the early 1990s, the development and adoption of superior educational methods led to the replacement of animal use in many U.S. medical schools. That process has continued to the point that today animals are used in only a small number of medical schools.

Q: How many U.S. medical schools still use animals and how many use nonanimal teaching methods?

A: Of the 141 allopathic and 30 osteopathic medical schools in the United States, all but three schools have eliminated the use of animals for in medical student courses. Almost all the remaining schools have only one or very few animal lab courses, and the number of schools still using animals continues to decline each year. Additionally, as of 2010 the curricula of all 17 medical schools in Canada were free of animal use.

Q: Don’t medical students have to see and experiment with complex living systems in order to learn how the human body works?

A: Not necessarily, but when this is the chosen method it should be taught using humans (in closely monitored scenarios) or lifelike human simulators as teaching tools, rather than animals with different anatomy and physiology. Such human-based teaching occurs routinely in medical schools, in the form of anatomy classes, observed surgeries and other patient procedures, and mentored experiences with clinical faculty. Many schools use human simulators, computer-based learning, didactic teaching, case discussions, and standardized patient exercises for this purpose.

Q: What nonanimal training methods are available?

A: Excellent validated and widely implemented alternatives are available for teaching all aspects of medical education previously taught using animals. High-fidelity, lifelike and programmable human patient simulators are now a mainstay of medical education at most U.S. medical schools. Computer-based learning such as interactive basic science and clinical programs are used to teach everything from anatomy and physiology to surgery techniques. Didactic teaching methods, class and small-group clinical case discussions, standardized patient exercises, echocardiography, observed surgeries and other procedures, faculty-mentored hands-on training, and many other progressive educational methods have all replaced the use of animals.

Q: Is the quality of medical school education affected by using nonanimal methods?

A: Yes – it’s better. Comparative studies show that both students and instructors prefer simulation-based education to the use of animals. Student test scores are equivalent or superior when nonanimal methods are used, and student skills testing is improved by using simulation methods compared to animals. Medical school course directors, curriculum directors, simulation center directors, and other education professionals are on record supporting the replacement of animals.

Q: Isn’t it necessary to use live animals to show how the human body responds to drugs?

A: No. Programmable human patient simulators that demonstrate human responses to a limitless number of drugs are far better than using anesthetized animals to learn animal responses to only one or a few drugs. The lessons can be repeated as needed when simulators are used, providing the advantages of iterative and individualized learning, as well as a safe environment to correct and learn from mistakes. Many schools teach drug responses by having students work with physicians during surgeries, in emergency rooms, and in intensive care units, where real-time responses in real people can be observed.

Q: Isn’t it necessary to use live animals to teach surgery techniques to medical students?

A: No. Many specially designed simulators and task trainers are available to teach surgery skills ranging from suturing to laparoscopic surgery. Open surgery techniques are taught during surgery rotations, under the hands-on guidance of faculty and staff. The American College of Surgeons’ highest level of facility accreditation stresses the use of partial task trainers and simulators but doesn’t even mention animals in its section on “appropriate and necessary devices.” If surgeons in subspecialty training don’t need to use animals, medical students certainly don’t.

Q: Don’t graduates of schools that use animal labs become better doctors and surgeons than those trained at schools that only use nonanimal methods?

A: No. Even schools that use animals allow students to opt out of those labs. Those students who opt out test as well as those who do not. And nearly all of the top-ranked U.S. medical schools have eliminated animal use, yet continue to be highly ranked every year.

Q: Doesn’t the faculty know the best way to teach medical students? Why would they use animals if this wasn’t the best way to teach?

A: In general, faculties do know the best ways to teach medical students – and faculties in more than 98 percent of U.S. medical schools have decided that animal use is neither essential nor preferred. In other schools, reluctance to change is often based on institutional inertia, lack of knowledge or skills regarding educational alternatives, unwillingness of instructors to learn new methods, and economic or logistics issues.

Q: Don’t medical students enjoy learning by using live animals?

A: Some do, some don’t, and some are neutral. For those who like the animal labs, it is often due to the “wow factor” of their first exposure to live anatomy and physiology. But comparative studies show that when given the opportunity to compare the learning experiences of animal labs and simulation-based teaching, students choose simulators as the better learning experience.

Q: Isn’t it true that when students may choose whether to attend an animal lab or opt out, most students decide to attend the lab?

A: This is generally true, but the reasons are often unfortunate. The “wow factor” of live animal dissection is attractive to some students, but most choose the animal lab because they are offered no educational alternatives, because those alternatives are badly designed afterthoughts, because there is peer group or faculty pressure, or because they fear being at a disadvantage for exams, course evaluations, and future recommendations. Again, when allowed to compare animal labs to simulators, most students prefer simulators.