“This doesn’t seem right,” I thought.
It was 1982, and as part of my Army trauma training I was cutting into the leg of an unconscious goat sprawled on a table. Then I made an incision between the animal’s ribs and slid a plastic tube into its chest. I performed other invasive procedures before the goat was euthanized.
But the whole time it seemed wrong.
It wasn’t my morals that were offended. The problem was the goat’s anatomy, which was too different from our own to be useful. The animal’s limbs were bony, the chest cavity was narrower and deeper, and the veins and arteries were in different locations from our own.
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Even worse, the training benefit was poor, because after the first student performed a tracheostomy, the next several just inserted their tube through the already existing opening.
Yet still today an otherwise advanced military is trying to prepare medical personnel by using goats and pigs, despite technological advances that have rendered it unnecessary.
My concerns are rooted in a deep respect for the military. At the age of 15, my father enlisted for World War II and served 27 years. My three brothers also started their careers as Army officers at West Point.
After two decades as a military neurosurgeon, I became a civilian and have been working in Tacoma ever since.
Readers may be familiar with the animal-based training issue because of news reports about a Gig Harbor-based company, Deployment Medicine International, which collected about $10 million from federal contracts for medical training.
In 2015, state boards in Washington and Virginia suspended the medical license of DMI’s president following accusations that he instructed students to inject each other with controlled substances and exploited trainees for sexual gratification. The company also conducted courses in which pigs were shot in the face and stabbed.
The Defense Department has spent millions on animal-based medical training in recent years, and much of that money went to companies like DMI.
In a standard course, an instructor cuts off a goat’s legs, one by one, using a tree trimmer. Many of these courses operate in secret, the location withheld from trainees until they arrive.
It’s high time we do a fair accounting of this issue, and that means bringing it into the light.
The money doled out to DMI and others is unnecessary to prepare medics and Navy corpsmen for the battlefield. Studies from the U.S., Canadian and Israeli militaries suggest that devices called “simulators,” which are modeled on human anatomy, are as effective as animals — or even better.
Air Force Maj. Andrew Hall, M.D., backed this up when he wrote in 2014: “We have entered into an age where artificial simulator models are at least equivalent to, if not superior to, animal models.” Simulators allow each student to perform procedures as new — much better than mindless repetition on a goat.
Years in the Army taught me a lot about inertia, and it’s clear our military won’t modernize in this area without help from an outside force. In this case, that force is Congress.
The Best Practices Act, which would phase in simulators for medical training over five years, already has support from more than 80 members of the House and Senate. Progress can also be seen elsewhere; a few weeks ago, the Coast Guard confirmed it had suspended animal use for this type of training.
In the coming weeks, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, will play a pivotal role in military oversight. His committee will continue work on the annual bill that specifies the Defense Department’s budget.
I hope Smith will use that bill to phase out the unnecessary use of animals for medical training. I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to see this change.
Dr. William Morris graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in the Army for 20 years. He is chief of neurosurgery at MultiCare Health System in Tacoma.