For years, students in the University Medical School’s Advanced Trauma Life Support course operated on live dogs to train for surgery. But after coming under heavy criticism last month, the University of Michigan Health System declared it would end the practice. In the statement announcing its decision, UMHS mentioned that other viable options exist to prepare students for trauma situations. Considering these other options, UMHS’s decision to put an end to a controversial and possibly unethical practice may seem warranted. But if it only stopped the practice to quell the public outcry, it wasn’t acting for the right reasons. The University needs to provide a sensible rationale for decisions like this one, because simply altering its practices without proper explanation isn’t sufficient.

The decision to stop using live dogs for surgical training came after the Physician’s Committee on Responsible Medicine — a non-profit organization that promotes ethical medical research — filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture criticizing the practice. In the complaint, PCRM suggested that Dr. Richard Burney, the professor who teaches a Advanced Trauma Life Support course, misled the University in order to use the live animals. Citing reccomendations from the Health System’s Graduate Medical Education Committee, UMHS announced an end to the practice last Thursday. In place of the dogs, the course will now use advanced technology like the TraumaMan System, an anatomical human mannequin used to simulate real surgery.

But the recent decision to turn to technology like TraumaMan may be based more on a desire to avoid a public relations nightmare than a solid opinion about how medical training should be performed. If the University allowed the use of dogs for surgery practice in the first place, there should have been a compelling reason for why this was the best practice given. Now that the practice is being discontinued, an equally valid reason should be given.

Instead, the statement announcing the decision was vague, even elusive, concerning the University’s reasoning. The statement merely said, “The decision comes from a recommendation by the Health System’s Graduate Medical Education Committee after a review of simulators that can be used to train medical professionals in trauma procedures.” UMHS has elected not to explain the logic behind the decision.

This statement doesn’t shed much light on UMHS’s reasoning. What concerned individuals expect from the University is clarity, not just a quick fix. The statement doesn’t say that the review showed that the simulators are a better option than operating on live animals. And it doesn’t give a reason why live dogs were used in surgical training in the first place. Instead, the statement avoids the ethical concerns by dancing around the issue and begs the question of whether this practice was eliminated simply because of the negative publicity.

The longer the University avoids explaining its reasoning behind first adopting and then banning the practice encourages the perception that the termination of the practice was just a move to put an end to the controversy. That’s not a good enough reason to make any decision, let alone one that concerns training the people who may one day save lives. The University should take a firm stance behind its programs, controversial or otherwise.

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