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Mayo Clinic halts use of live animals in training doctors

ROCHESTER, Minn. — In the wake of a complaint from a national advocacy group, Mayo Clinic has ended its use of live animals in training emergency medicine residents.

In February, Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a complaint asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to investigate Mayo Clinic’s use of pigs in once-a-year emergency medical training. The complaint alleged Mayo Clinic’s use of live animals violated the federal Animal Welfare Act.

At the time, Mayo Clinic declined to discuss details of the training, how pigs are used each year or if the pigs come from Mayo Clinic’s own Institute Hills animal farm. However, the clinic did send out a general statement on the issue.

"These are techniques that cannot be effectively taught in a simulation center,” according to the written statement sent by Mayo Clinic’s Bob Nellis in February.

Mayo Clinic confirmed that it had changed its policy. However, it did not answer questions about when the policy changed or if the federal complaint led to the change.

In an email, Nellis said, "Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science continuously evaluates and evolves its medical training to prepare the most highly skilled doctors for patients with serious, complex and rare conditions. We believe there is merit in minimizing the use of animals where proven, highly effective alternatives are found; and we have pioneered many innovative approaches to do so."

Dropping the use of live animals in this type of training puts Mayo Clinic more in line with similar institutions, according to the Physicians Committee.

The Physicians Committee polled 267 emergency medical residency programs in the U.S. and Canada and found that “94 percent do not use any animals for any aspect of that training.”

Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis and Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins medical center both have ended the practice in recent years, after facing criticism from the Physicians Committee.

“It was the right move for Mayo Clinic to modernize its curriculum,” said Dr. John Pippin of the Physicians Committee in an announcement sent out this week. “Human-based training methods can better prepare residents to perform life-saving procedures.”

Mayo Clinic's statement attributed the change to its internal process of improvement.

"These decisions are always based on what is in the best interest of our patients and trainees, and we will continue to assess our curriculum so that tomorrow’s doctors can provide the safest, highest quality care to patients everywhere," according to the statement released by Nellis.

Many will recognize the name Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine from a TV commercial campaign that was launched early this year against people eating bacon. The ad specifically targeted Austin-based Hormel Foods.

Given that campaign and the complaint against Mayo Clinic, is the nonprofit just a pro-animal organization like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals?

Pippin says that’s not correct. Both the anti-bacon campaign and the Mayo Clinic complaint are about addressing public health and best practices issues.