For those of us in the healthcare field, the use of models to learn medical procedures is not such a clear cut improvement in welfare.

There was a recent incident in which an animal rights group registered a complaint against cardiologists at the University of Washington who were utilizing ferrets for training physicians in pediatric intubation - a procedure that is incredibly hard to perform and is absolutely essential to sustain life in compromised human neonates. 

The animal right’s group that filed a federal compliant against the University of Washington for these activities was that Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). A group that admittedly has marketed itself wisely. Don’t be had though - this animal rights group has a few puppet physicians but its membership is <10% medical doctors; needless to say I would give this groups opinion weight if it was educated by the input of physicians who actually actively participate in clinical research and training which utilize animals. The complaint focused on the use (or accused lack thereof) of alternative models for pediatric intubation training. Dr. Dennis Mayock, a professor of pediatrics and medical director of the UW’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit responded;

The spirit of the law is to clearly demonstrate there are better alternatives,”  said, but at this point, those alternatives are “not to the level of sophistication we need for these very tiny infants

And, unlike the Physicians Committee for Responsible Research, Dr. Mayock’s claim is backed by objective studies conducted that assess the success rate of pediatric intubation among physicians at a major Texas medical center, part of the abstract is given here:

We provide objective and subjective data concerning the proficiency of pediatric residents in performing neonatal endotracheal intubation. None of our resident groups met the specified definition of technical competence, although there was improvement with advancing training level in bivariate analyses. However, graduates of our training program felt confident with their intubation skills in contrast to our objective findings. As exposure to these important skills becomes limited, methods to ensure attainment of technical competency during training may need to be redefined.

- Falck AJ et al 2003

This data demonstrates that physicians need the hands-on training they can achieve through the use of the ferret model. The “alternative models” for this particular procedure are reported to be nothing like the difficulty of actual pediatric intubation and further adds stress to the physicians life if and when the procedure needs to be put into practice in the hospital. 

In addition the Veterinary Lab Animal community has studied the welfare of ferrets used as part of this training. In specific veterinarians have validated the health and well-being of ferrets used for up up to 8 practice intubations twice a month; which is generally more than these animals are typically used. 

While alternatives to using animals in medical training exist not all alternatives are created equal. Many still need to mature enough to safely replace the use of established animal models for training competent physicians to whom we entrust the care of our children.