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MeritCare animal use under fire

MeritCare Medical Center in Fargo is facing heat over its use of live pigs in its trauma training classes intended to reduce patient death rates.

MeritCare offers Advanced Trauma Life Support courses for doctors, which typically involve using human cadavers, nonhuman technology and animals for the sessions that include surgical procedures.

Its use of sedated pigs for the courses is the subject of a written complaint being filed today with the United States Department of Agriculture by a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit promoting compassionate and effective medical practice and research.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is asking the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to investigate MeritCare's use of pigs in its trauma trainings, the complaint states.

"We believe that this animal use is a violation of the Animal Welfare Act because there are equivalent alternative nonanimal technologies available," Dr. John Pippin, a PCRM senior medical and research adviser, wrote in the complaint.

Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the PCRM and a Fargo native, argues that MeritCare should also be using nonanimal teaching methods not just because "you're killing animals unnecessarily," but because pigs are not the same anatomically as a human being.

"If a trauma surgeon or emergency physician is going to give the best care, they ought to train on something that's as close to human as possible," Barnard said Tuesday. He suggested the use of human cadavers and the human simulator called the TraumaMan System instead.

MeritCare spokeswoman Carrie Haug said Tuesday she had not seen the complaint, but said the hospital does use animals when teaching providers life-saving skills.

"Our Advanced Trauma Life Support class is lawfully conducted and adheres to all of the requirements of the American College of Surgeons, which does provide for the use of live animals," Haug said in a written statement.

The complaint also states the PCRM is conducting an ongoing survey of U.S. medical facilities offering ATLS courses, which has found that more than 90 percent of the facilities use nonanimal models for their trainings.

According to the North Dakota Department of Health, St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck is the only other facility in the state that offers ATLS training.

Barnard said St. Alexius already uses the TraumaMan System in its trauma teachings. The PCRM complaint is being filed with the USDA's Western Region Office.