A large, bloody scalpel looms over Rossville Boulevard.
"WARNING," reads the billboard, located just south of Interstate 24 as motorists head into Chattanooga. "You are entering UT's Substandard Medical Training Zone!"
The billboard - which is paired with another on Riverside Drive that congratulates drivers for "surviving" the "substandard medical training zone" - was erected this week by a national physicians group protesting the University of Tennessee College of Medicine at Chattanooga's practice of allowing physicians, students and other health care workers to train for surgery on live pigs.
The college of medicine here is one of just three medical schools out of 188 polled in the U.S. and Canada that still allow students to practice on animals, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents more than 12,000 physicians and promotes alternatives to animal research, among other causes.
The two other schools besides UTCOMC that still allow the practice are Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Rush Medical College in Chicago.
"It is disgraceful and inappropriate. It shows not only a lack of sympathy for the animals, it shows a lack of willingness to adopt current educational standards," said Dr. John J. Pippin, the committee's director of academic affairs.
Most medical schools - including the other campuses of the University of Tennessee - have students practice surgery exclusively on cadavers or high-tech simulators, the organization said. Most universities made the switch not because of animal cruelty concerns, but because training on animals is no longer considered best practice for human procedures, Pippin said.
UTCOMC's self-proclaimed "state-of-the-art" Clinical Skills and Simulation Center should make the training on animals unnecessary, the committee said. But the training on pigs continues. The practice involves making incisions into the anesthetized pigs and practicing procedures such as inserting endoscopes and removing parts of organs. Once the sessions are ended, the pigs are euthanized.
The organization said about 300 pigs are euthanized annually in UTCOMC's program.
Sheila Champlin, spokeswoman for the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, said the program is "designed to develop life-saving skills."
She said the university uses simulators in training, and that in most cases "they are adequate for teaching purposes."
"However, when they are not, we use what, in our opinion, are the best models for teaching," Champlin said.
She said the program is primarily for physicians and other health care workers who have graduated with medical degrees and is "not designed or required for medical students."
Pippin said the committee has been coming after UTCOMC's practice of operating on pigs for more than five years. Three years ago, the group asked then-District Attorney Bill Cox to consider animal abuse charges against the medical school. Cox said the state statute excludes livestock.
Pippin said the group decided to launch the billboard campaign after trying to communicate "up and down the chain of command" at UTCOMC and getting "absolutely no response at all."
"We hope there will be other sources of public pressure brought to bear on the university, and that they will have to defend themselves," Pippin said.
On Thursday, a Physician's Committee member and attorney plan to deliver petitions signed by 365 Tennessee physicians to UTCOMC Dean David Seaberg.
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison Belz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.