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Second Opinion

No More Going Live

This news may be surprising to some and yet anticipated by others. Effective the end of the current academic year, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine will no longer use live animals in medical student education.

Surgical procedures on live pigs have been used in the core clerkship in surgery for medical students at the school of medicine for many years. In this part of the curriculum, students perform complex, nonsurvival surgical procedures, working in three- to four-person teams under the direct supervision of surgical faculty members and veterinary technicians.

Although the Association of American Medical Colleges affirmed the use of animals for medical education in a 2008 policy statement, provided such use is “judicious, responsible and humane,” almost all medical schools have now eliminated the use of live animals in medical student education, turning instead to simulation.

Johns Hopkins is one of only a handful of schools in the country to have continued this practice. Students must opt in if they wish to participate in the live animal lab, and the experience includes a component on the ethics of animal use for education. While the majority of students feel that the live animal lab is highly valued and is of great benefit to their education, it has been the most publicly controversial aspect of our medical school experience. 

In 2013, a group of faculty leaders, current and former students, and current residents examined the value of this experience and addressed whether we should continue the animal lab in the core clerkship in surgery. Many members of this group expressed strong sentiment that the use of live animals provided benefit beyond training in surgical skills. Indeed, many noted that this experience gave students the opportunity to be directly responsible for decision-making in life-threatening situations in a way that could not be achieved in the simulation laboratory.

At that time, we concluded that notwithstanding these benefits, for our curriculum to continue to use live animals, it would have to be demonstrated convincingly that this experience had unique value and that the lab was essential to the training of a medical student.

Last year, the Office of Undergraduate Medical Education was asked to examine this issue more carefully. A task force was convened that included members from within and outside of Johns Hopkins, people from our medical and undergraduate campuses, students who have opted in and out of the experience, and faculty educators from procedural and nonprocedural fields. The task force spent several months reviewing data, conducting interviews and surveys, and contacting representatives from other medical schools that had recently stopped using live animals in their curriculum and those that continue to do so.

The task force produced a report earlier this year that concluded that while very highly valued by our students, this laboratory experience is not essential to the professional development of a medical student.

Given that almost all medical schools have stopped using live animals in medical student education and that the experience is not essential, the school of medicine has decided that the use of live animals in the surgical clerkship should stop. We did not come to this decision lightly. Indeed, it has taken a year to reach this conclusion, which we believe is best for our students and faculty, as well as the public we serve.

Roy Ziegelstein is the Sarah Miller Coulson and Frank L. Coulson, Jr., Professor of Medicine and the Mary Wallace Stanton Professor of Education.

Given that almost all medical schools have stopped using live animals in medical student education and that the experience is not essential, the school of medicine has decided that the use of live animals in the surgical clerkship should stop.