Jennifer Wider, MD

Disclosures

April 19, 2000

Abstract and Introduction

A number of medical schools in the United States use dog labs to teach students the basic principles of physiology and pharmacology. Typically, instructors or students anesthetize the dog, cut open its chest, and use its beating heart to determine the effects of medications. At the end of the demonstration, the dog is killed.

Many schools have eliminated the lab from their curricula. Approximately half of the 126 American medical schools, including Stanford, Yale, and Johns Hopkins, incorporate teaching tools like interactive computer programs, CD-ROMs, and observation of human surgery as substitutes. At Harvard Medical School, students can watch surgeons perform a human heart bypass procedure in the OR in lieu of the dog lab.

But some schools don't offer an alternative. Larry Hansen, MD, Associate Professor in the Department of Pathology and Neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), explained that 30 out of the 120 students opted out of the dog labs last year and were provided with no alternatives by the faculty at UCSD. He believed that even more students would abstain if they did not have to explain their reason to the professor in person for not wanting to participate. He circulated a petition which was signed by 150 doctors who opposed the dog lab, and now students at UCSD need only send an email if they choose not to be involved, but still no alternative is provided.

Some students feel the lab is an invaluable experience. Daniel Egan, a second-year student at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, NY, participated in the dog lab. "I know that I learn best visually with hands-on experiences. Therefore, I felt a computer simulation truly would not suffice." Half of the students at Mount Sinai participated and half elected to do the computer module. A student who did not want to be named said, "I don't think I missed anything, and [Mount] Sinai made it easy to opt out."

For many, ethics is at the core of the issue. Dr. Hansen said that the dog lab is "unethical because it is clearly unnecessary, most US medical schools don't do it, and no schools do it in England, yet they produce graduates imminently qualified to practice medicine." Hansen went on to say: "It's unkind; if you look up the word 'humane' you'll find 'to treat with kindness and consideration.'" Hansen explained that these dogs are raised for the sole purpose of medical demonstration. They live in cages at a kennel and have both "a bad life and a bad death." Hansen contends that if something is both unnecessary and unkind, even inhumane, it shouldn't be done.

Egan recognized the ethical dilemma but still chose to participate. "I think overall it is a valuable, educational experience, as long as students and instructors don't lose sight of the ultimate goal. It is unethical if the experience is taken lightly."

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