Maine Medical Center’s decision to end the practice of using live pigs for emergency medicine training is following a national trend of spurning the use of live animals in favor of high-tech simulators.

The Portland hospital was one of only a dozen hospitals across the country that still used live animals rather than simulators, according to a survey by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

The percentage of emergency medicine training programs where live animals were used plummeted from 86 percent of the 270 programs surveyed in 2004 to 4 percent in 2019, according to the committee, a Washington-based advocacy group.

The committee was set to file a federal lawsuit against Maine Med, but called it off last week after hospital officials informed it that they were transitioning medical training entirely to simulators.

The simulators are increasingly advanced, including mannequins that have “lifelike skin, subcutaneous fat and muscle” and use computer software to mimic live humans, the committee said. Medical students also practice on cadavers.

Maine Med officials would not answer questions about the program and how pigs were used.

The hospital issued a statement last week saying that after completing a regular annual review of the program, it had decided to use a simulation-based system to train emergency medicine residents on how to perform life-saving procedures and discontinue the use of pigs.

The physicians committee contends that Maine Med ended the program “in response” to concerns raised by the group.

“Maine Medical Center ended the (emergency medicine) residency animal labs in response to the launch of our campaign and the submission of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service complaint (to federal regulators). We congratulate MMC leadership for this decision,” Dr. John Pippin, director of academic affairs for the Physicians Committee, said in a statement to the Press Herald.

Maine Medical Center recently passed an inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it was operating its program in compliance with federal law on the treatment of animals, according to documentation provided by the hospital.

“Maine Med is unaware of any compliance issues regarding its use of animal subjects in medical training and a recent inspection by federal regulators confirmed that,” the hospital said in a statement.

According to an annual report for 2018 filed with the USDA, Maine Med used 13 pigs for its medical training program. The hospital also used 89 other animals in research for tests that did not involve “pain, distress or use of pain-relieving drugs.” The other animals included 52 mice, 15 voles, 12 chipmunks and two squirrels.

While it is legal to use live animals for medical training, a variety of factors is leading hospitals to move away from the practice, said Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University.

“Many schools have reduced animal use for three reasons: a growing awareness of the need to avoid animal suffering, student pressure to reduce use and cost,” Caplan said in an email to the Press Herald.

Jeff Sebo, director of the animal studies program at New York University, said in an email to Press Herald that “performing harmful, invasive, non-consensual, and non-therapeutic procedures on live animals when alternatives are available is inconsistent with any reasonable interpretation of medical ethics.”

It was common for medical students to use pigs to practice tracheotomies, insert breathing tubes, and procedures that open the chest to expose the heart and lungs, the physicians committee said. The animals were typically euthanized after surgeries, while the simulators can be used many times.

“We’re very pleased that Maine Medical Center now exclusively employs modern training methods,” Pippin said.

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