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Ethics in Medical Student Training

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine spent 31 years pushing the evolution of medical training in order to reach today’s paradigm, in which medical student education is animal-free and human-relevant.

In 1994, the majority of medical school curricula in the United States included live animal laboratory exercises. However, over the last 20 years that practice has steadily declined, and after 2005 the transition away from animal use accelerated.

As recently as February 2015, four medical schools—the University of Mississippi, Rush University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Tennessee’s campus in Chattanooga—used live animals for student training, but all have since ended the practice. As of May 2018, none of the 204 surveyed medical schools in the United States or Canada is known to use live animals for this purpose.

How Animals Were Used 

The use of animals in medical student education has predominantly occurred in two courses: physiology (including pharmacology) and surgery. The University of Mississippi, for example, was the last school to use live pigs to teach human cardiovascular physiology to first-year students. Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Chattanooga was the last medical school in the United States and Canada to end its animal use, which included using live pigs to teach surgical skills to third-year medical students.

In physiology animal labs, students were typically instructed to place catheters into the arteries and veins of animals, to perform various interventions and manipulations, and to inject the animals with drugs, while measuring physiological responses such as blood pressure, heart rate, and cardiovascular performance. Students were then sometimes instructed to open the animals’ chest cavities and massage the heart. The animals were killed after the training, if they did not die during the experiments. If the animals survived the invasive procedures, they were killed after the training session.

In medical student animal labs designed to teach surgical skills, techniques such as incisions and organ identification, organ removal, suturing, and other basic surgical procedures were taught. In recent years, laparoscopic surgery has often been added to surgical skills training. Animal use for laparoscopic surgery involved making incisions in an animal's abdomen and then inserting tubes with lighted cameras (endoscopes) and surgical instruments into the animal for the purpose of practicing surgical procedures. At the end of the training sessions, the animals were killed. 

To learn more about how we ended animal use in medical school curricula, see our Medical Schools Report

Human-Based Training Methods

The replacement of animal use for medical student education resulted primarily from the development of lifelike interactive and programmable simulators that better replicate human anatomy and physiology, the validation of these simulators as equivalent or superior to animal-based education, the recognition that human-based training transfers much better to clinical medicine, and the incorporation of medical ethics in medical school curricula.

Animal-Free From the Start: New Medical Schools 

As medical schools increasingly have replaced animal use with human-based educational methods, this shift has been starkly demonstrated by new medical schools. The 55 surveyed medical schools that have opened in the United States since 1979, 51 have implemented animal-free curricula from the beginning, and four responses for new schools are pending. The absence of animal use confirms that for a very long time the medical school standard of education has not included the use of animals.

The Physicians Committee’s Survey of Medical Schools 

When it was founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee began to survey the training methodologies employed at all accredited medical schools in the United States and Canada.