Group celebrates end to animal use in Chattanooga emergency medical training

A nonprofit physicians group that advocates for alternatives to animal research is touting a victory in its efforts to modernize graduate medical education at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine Chattanooga.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, "applauds UTCOM Chattanooga for making the switch to human-relevant training methods for its emergency medicine residents," according to a Friday statement from the organization.

For years, the group has campaigned across the country, including through social media and billboard advertising in Chattanooga, against medical students using live animals to hone their skills, calling the practice "both substandard and extremely inhumane" and citing availability of human simulators.

Although animal use in four-year medical schools ended in 2016, some doctors-in-training still encounter animals in their residency programs, such as Chattanooga's surgery residency.

The controversial training involves cutting into live pigs after they are put to sleep, and the surviving animals are killed after the session.

An open records request filed by the Physicians Committee in November 2017 revealed live animal use protocols and lab schedules that included emergency medicine residents participating in procedures on animals as recently as July 2016.

Friday's statement from the committee was prompted by Dr. Bruce Shack, dean of UTCOMC, telling NewsChannel 9 on Monday the school's emergency medicine residency program does not use live animals.

Shack told the Times Free Press that he spoke to the news channel after being "inundated with letters and emails" from the committee, and said animals are still used to train surgery residents.

"Simulators are good and are getting better almost every year, but they're nowhere near normal tissue - it just doesn't have the same feel," Shack said. "You don't want yourself being the first living being your doctor operates on."

Shack said the lab is monitored by the United States Department of Agriculture, and the process is "very humane."

Currently, 209 of 223 - or 94 percent - of surveyed emergency medicine residency programs in the United States and Canada train using human models instead of animals, but Vanderbilt University in Tennessee still uses live animals, according to the Physicians Committee.

A spokesperson for the committee said that while they don't condone animal use for any type of medical training, they are currently targeting specific training areas, such as emergency medicine, and have no current campaigns targeting surgery residencies.

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423- 757-6673.