Pigging out: UPMC deserves heat for its use of live animals

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A complaint filed by an animal rights organization put an unwelcome spotlight on a UPMC trauma program that uses live pigs to train physicians, a practice that the hospital system nevertheless says it is phasing out.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claiming that the hospital is using live animals when there are mechanical alternatives and cadavers that could be used instead. The group says UPMC is one of only 11 medical facilities in North America, out of 225 that offer this training, that use live animals and the only one of 12 such hospitals in Pennsylvania -- numbers that UPMC disputes.

The organization contends UPMC's practice is a violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act, and the USDA will inspect the health network's program.

The group making the allegations has come under criticism of its own, including from the American Medical Association, which says neither is it predominately made up of physicians nor is it responsible, given some of its positions including opposition to cow's milk in children's lunches and the use of animals in medical research.

Still, as the saying goes, even the blind pig finds the odd truffle, and the group did dig up the nugget that UPMC has been using the animals in training courses six to eight times per year to teach doctors. The hospital system says it properly follows all applicable laws and voluntary standards in using live animals, and it disputes the group's claim that few other hospitals continue to do so.

One trauma chief surgeon from Massachusetts told the Post-Gazette's Sean D. Hamill that, when it comes to training, "there's just no substitute for living, bleeding tissue," but plenty of other surgeons disagree.

Allegheny General Hospital stopped using live animals in trauma training four years ago, switching to use of a mannequin called TraumaMan. UPMC says it began moving away from the use of live animals more than a year ago and plans to complete that transition within the next few months.

Let's hope so, because the policy should have been abandoned by now. Practicing medical techniques on live animals is inhumane when good alternatives exist.



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