Learning not to kill

By SARAH MCNAUGHT  |  February 28, 2008

In recent years, however, there has been “a steady decline in the number of schools using live animals,” according to a 1994 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges. AAMC assistant vice president Patricia Green says that half the 126 medical schools in the US now rely exclusively on alternatives to live-animal labs, such as operating-room observation or interactive computer programs. Of the half that still offer animal labs, 40 schools offer one of these more modern alternatives for any student uncomfortable with the live-animal procedures. Only 23 schools still require first-year medical students to attend animal labs.

Harvard is one of the schools that’s made the switch, thanks in part to students like Rachel Freelund. When she arrived at the Harvard Medical School, Freelund says, she and some of her classmates were appalled to learn that they had to witness the death of a beagle in order to observe the effects of drugs on the body. She had serious ethical problems with killing healthy animals in the name of learning.

Freelund, now a fourth-year student, took her concerns to her physiology professor, Dr. Bruce Zedder, who she says was open to the idea of alternatives. He directed her to PCRM, which helped Harvard update its curriculum so that students could study the effects of medication on the body’s functions without killing animals.

Instead of emphasizing animal labs, Harvard now sends students to Massachusetts General, Beth Israel, and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals to watch surgical procedures. Although the students are not allowed to take part in operations, they do get hands-on experience in procedures such as administering medication. Four years into the program, more than 100 Harvard students have benefited.

“By observing actual operating-room procedures, medical students will understand what it takes in medicine to truly help people and to attain an outcome that will save a life or improve the quality of life,” says Dr. Henry Heimlich, the world-renowned physician who developed the maneuver used to save people who are choking or drowning. “After all, isn’t that the goal of a doctor — to save lives, not destroy them?”

Kaminer counters that in order to save a life, doctors need to understand how the entire body works. This understanding, he says, can’t be gained simply by observing surgery on a specific organ. “Students aren’t allowed, for instance, to touch a patient in an operating room,” he points out. “In a lab, the students can hold the heart and get a true sense for a healthy organ and its function.”

Yet students can learn plenty from watching doctors perform operations, says Dr. Michael D’Ambra, a cardiac anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General who heads the Harvard Medical School’s operating-room program. In his experience, students who participate in operating-room procedures gain firsthand knowledge of the functions of the heart, lungs, kidneys, nervous system, and hormones.

“The only thing a student can do in a dog lab that we don’t cover in the operating room is killing the animal after the observation process is over,” D’Ambra says.

Another technique that allows students to gain experience without killing animals is to set up virtual experiments using interactive CD-ROM technology. To some medical school students and professors, these high-tech programs are even more effective teaching tools than animal labs are. Students can work at their own pace, and repeat their experiments until they have a solid grasp of the information they are studying.

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