Engineers can do more to highlight modern alternatives to using animals as test dummies, says Mimi Bekhechi.
Shooting, stabbing, burning, and blowing up live animals to practise battlefield medical skills sounds medieval. And it is. The militaries of nearly 80 per cent of Nato’s 28 nations use lifelike simulators, virtual reality and other modern methods that don’t involve animals exclusively to teach medical procedures to soldiers. Yet a small handful of countries - the UK, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and the US - still kill thousands of pigs, goats and other animals in these exercises every year.Engineers are playing a pivotal role in relegating this archaic practice to the dustbin of history by developing modern medical-simulation technologies.
The ethical problem of using living, feeling, thinking beings as test dummies is obvious. The practical limitations are widely acknowledged too. There are vast differences in anatomy and physiology between pigs and humans. Animal use is also expensive and does not allow trainees to practise techniques repeatedly until they’re proficient or trainers to assess their students’ performance objectively.
Thankfully, simulation engineers, in collaboration with programmers, designers, manufacturers and health professionals, have created a range of strikingly lifelike and effective medical training tools that render the use of animals irrelevant.
One example is Simulab Corporation’s TraumaMan, an anatomically correct human torso that allows surgical trainees to learn and practise critical emergency procedures, such as placing a chest tube, using actual surgical tools. Another, CAE Healthcare’s Caesar, is a wireless, electronic full-body human-patient simulator custom-designed for military training. Caesar breathes, bleeds from amputations and gunshot wounds, responds to medications, has digital eyes that blink, verbally relays symptoms, and articulates changes based on trainees’ performance - even ‘dying’ if procedures are not performed correctly.
As for virtual reality, the US military has developed a system called SimPL for teaching diagnostic peritoneal lavage (DPL), a critical procedure where fluid is drawn from the abdomen to assess internal bleeding.
A recent development has been the advent of hybrid systems such as Strategic Operations’ Cut Suit, an upper-body surgical simulator worn by an actor to create a highly interactive training experience that is dynamic and mimics what it’s like to treat an injured soldier on the battlefield. The Cut Suit can be worn under uniform or even body armour and features realistic synthetic skin, fatty tissue, muscles, organs that can be cut and sutured and even breakable bones and variable blood-flow and heart rate.
Evidence of the effectiveness of these training methods abounds. Military and civilian studies have repeatedly found that, when compared with animal laboratories, realistic human simulators better equip medical providers with technical ability, confidence, psychological preparedness and the teamwork skills to treat traumatic injuries.
As a result of these developments, and efforts by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and its affiliates, the US military has recently scaled back its use of animals for trauma training, now uses human simulators instead of poisoning monkeys for chemical warfare training, and at many facilities has stopped using cats and ferrets to practise breathing-tube placement. The few Nato nations still using animals have organised a working group to examine alternative methods.
Engineers have been instrumental in developing modern tools that make medical training more effective and can save countless lives - both human and nonhuman - but more engagement from the engineering community is needed to educate policy leaders as to the lifesaving advantages offered by modernising military medical training through the use of 21st century technology. *
Mimi Bekhechi (@Mimi_Bekhechi) is UK director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.