Use of live pigs in trauma training class under fire
FARGO - A nonprofit opposed to North Dakota State University's use of live pigs in a trauma training class with Sanford Health wants Fargo's city attorney to put an end to the lethal practice.
Officials with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine say the group plans to send a letter to City Attorney Erik Johnson today asking him to launch a criminal investigation into the program.
The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group believes the practice of killing pigs during NDSU and Sanford's Advanced Trauma Life Support class violates the state's animal cruelty law and doesn't fall within the exemption for scientific research because it's a training program.
"We have what we think is a very solid position," said Dr. John J. Pippin, academic affairs director for PCRM.
The group has often tried to convince North Dakota officials to stop using live pigs in the ATLS class, lobbying MeritCare Health System in 2008 and NDSU officials and then-Gov. John Hoeven in 2009.
Pippin said the group decided to pursue legal action when it became clear that NDSU wouldn't change the program. The goal isn't criminal charges or fines, only an end to the use of live pigs, he said.
"It's not our wish, or not our standard practice, to address legal issues when we talk about this, but we're really out of options," he said.
Neil Dyer, chairman of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at NDSU that approves the use of live, sedated pigs, said there are no plans to change the ATLS class.
"NDSU's policy or response to this has always been that the use of living tissue is a much better training mechanism for trauma physicians, and there's plenty of literature out there to support that," Dyer said.
The American College of Surgeons allows the use of live pigs for ATLS classes, but Pippin noted it also has approved - and the majority of classes use - human simulators such as TraumaMan and Synman.
Of the 264 ATLS programs surveyed by the group in the United States and Canada, all but five used non-animal methods to teach surgical skills, including Altru Health System in Grand Forks and St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck, Pippin wrote in his letter to Johnson.
Sanford Medical Center's trauma director, Dr. Steven Briggs, said more than 15 programs and 30 percent of ATLS courses still use pigs, citing information from Will Chapleau, ATLS program manager for the American College of Surgeons' Committee on Trauma. A message left at Chapleau's office late Wednesday to confirm the figures wasn't immediately returned.
Briggs said he has participated in ATLS courses using TraumaMan and in-cadaver dissection, and neither model replicates live tissue, "especially not the mannequin."
Sanford regularly has students travel to its ATLS course - some from as far away as Arizona - seeking the pig experience, having found the TraumaMan inadequate, Briggs stated in an emailed response to a request for comment from Sanford.
"In the rural setting, dealing with a severely injured trauma patient is stressful as it doesn't regularly occur. Having to perform an invasive procedure to keep the patient alive only amplifies the stress," he said. "The students often comment that after having placed chest tubes in a living, breathing creature, they finally feel the confidence necessary to be successful when faced with that situation at their home facility."
Altru has used TraumaMan since launching its ATLS class about two years ago, said Vicky Black, trauma program coordinator. The simulator is "as realistic as a simulator can be," Black said, but she added that training on a four-legged pig also is different than on a two-legged human.
"So there are drawbacks and positives to both, I think," she said.
The PCRM has zeroed in on North Dakota's animal cruelty statute, which prohibits any act that causes unjustifiable pain, suffering or death.
Pippin's letter asks Johnson to investigate as soon as possible and stop the practice before NDSU's next ATLS class. While he hasn't received the letter, Johnson said he will likely have a city prosecutor review the issue.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528