Penn State’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center has been accused of violating the Animal Welfare Act in its continued use of live animals to perform emergency medical training.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed an official complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture Wednesday, seeking an investigation into the center's use of live pigs in its Emergency Medicine Residency training program.
In a statement to The Daily Collegian, Hershey Medical Center said its program “follows all applicable regulatory requirements, including those set forth by the [USDA], that guide the use of animals for advanced trauma life support training for emergency medicine residents.”
However, according to the committee’s complaint, no other university training of its kind in the state is performed using living animals.
Specifics of the training in Hershey are not readily available due to Penn State's disclosure requirements, according to the complaint, and the university did not share those specifics when requested.
However, a phone call with a member of the program this fall reportedly confirmed animal-driven training within the award-winning facility, according to the complaint.
“We learned from someone in the Emergency Medicine Residency Program on Sept. 18 of this year that live pigs were used to teach the emergency medicine residents urgent procedures,” said Dr. John Pippin, the committee’s director of academic affairs, in a phone interview with the Collegian. “[This includes] emergency procedures like cutting a hole in the trachea for a breathing tube or putting a needle in chest, putting in deep IVs in veins that are too deep to see."
The nonprofit issuing this complaint has 175,000 members in the U.S. and the world, according to its website. The committee states it’s dedicated to “saving and improving human and animal lives through plant-based diets and ethical and effective scientific research” — something it asserts is not happening in Hershey.
Pippin added he is certain that filing this complaint will trigger the sought-after investigation from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
“We are hoping they will confirm what we've claimed, find the university in violation of Animal Welfare Act, and make them correct those violations — which would mean they would have to end animal use,” he said. Pippin said Penn State would then need to modify its emergency medicine residency curriculum in Hershey to be in compliance.
The committee’s complaint was only able to point to procedures having been commonly performed on live animals during emergency medicine residency trainings in other places:
- Chest tube placement (an incision between the ribs followed by the insertion of a tube into the chest cavity to drain air, blood or other fluids)
- Cricothyroidotomy (an incision in the throat and the insertion of a breathing tube)
- Open thoracotomy (an incision in the chest wall with insertion of a rib-spreader to expose the heart and lungs)
- Pericardiocentesis (the insertion of a needle below the breastbone to remove fluid from the sac surrounding the heart)
- However, the complaint laid out a few key alleged violations to the Animal Welfare Act.
Section 2143 of the Animal Welfare Act, and a later section of its regulations, state that a “principal investigator” — in this case, potentially course instructors, according to the complaint — must “consider alternatives to procedures that may cause more than momentary or slight pain or distress to any animal used for research or educational purposes.”
And further policy reads that if another method not involving the use of animals could be found, the investigator must “explain why an alternative that had been found was not used.”
In its statement, Hershey Medical Center added the facility evaluates “all relevant learning methods to achieve the highest possible level of scientific and academic value and the most realistic experience when training physicians to save lives.”
However, the committee alleges the center did not meet this requirement — given that widespread alternatives to live animal use exist.
“We point out not only that 94 percent of the surveyed emergency medicine programs in the U.S. do not use animals, but also that we're not aware of any other emergency medicine program in Pennsylvania that uses animals,” Pippin said in the interview.
The complaint was signed by four Pennsylvania-based physicians, including:
- Karen M. Sharrar, of Philadelphia
- Alexanndra Kreps, of Pittsburgh
- Christopher Wenger, of Lancaster
- Debra Kimless, of Chadds Ford
According to the committee, other programs employ different methods for emergency procedures, claiming they can be taught using human-body models or human cadavers.
Working in advocacy in the medical field since 2005, after leaving academic medicine at Harvard University and the Medical College of Virginia, as well as being trained with animals himself during his education, Pippin didn’t hesitate to speak to the training in Hershey.
“Their colleagues have demonstrated overwhelmingly that using simulation is a better teaching method than using animals, and we don't understand why Penn State won't get on board with that…” Pippin said. “We find that head-scratching.”
These “simulations,” found in the complaint, include one called Simulab’s TraumaMan System, a realistic replica of an anatomically correct human body with “lifelike skin, subcutaneous fat, and muscle” — which could potentially be used to replace many procedures currently performed on living pigs.
The next alleged violation rests with the Penn State IACUC, or Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, itself — having allegedly failed in its oversight of these programs by not enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.
According to Pippin, back in the 1980s and ‘90s, close to 90 percent of U.S. medical schools and graduate medical education programs were using animals. But, that has declined rapidly over the last 30 years, “both due to the development of better curricula that don't involve animals and also due to the development of simulation alternatives... better than using a pig or dog or a cat — anatomically nothing like a human.”
In 2010, the medical center was also issued an official warning from APHIS for violating federal regulations following an animal’s death, according to an APHIS document. The warning vaguely cited a failure for the center to ensure all its personnel were properly trained. APHIS found animal care, associated treatment records and the training for certain employees “were inadequate.”
Pippin said many people will look at this issue differently — a matter of ethics or purely academics.
“Whether you feel it should never be done, whether you feel the animals don't matter,” Pippin said, “I think we should all agree that using animals in this manner, doing these invasive procedures and then killing the animals, is inexcusable when the result is a substandard level of training.”
According to PETA, 121 million pigs are killed in the U.S. alone for food each year, most often on factory farms or in a slaughterhouse.
The medical center said it maintains “a strong commitment to treating animals in a humane and ethical way when used in research and training for the treatment and cure of disease.” And, it also earned a voluntary accreditation by the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, according to its statement.