A defining moment in many medical students’ academic career is their first experience handling a cadaver. For many doctors, the memory of feeling and touching human organs for the first time is symbolic. It’s the moment many face mortality for the first time in their medical careers. Many also recall the experience with a feeling of gratitude toward those who donated their bodies so that they could learn.
Advancements in imaging technology have led to some anatomy education going digital through so-called virtual cadavers. The experience of using a virtual cadaver may not elicit the same emotional reaction as human cadavers, but it could offer students a chance to have a unique learning experience.
There’s only so much time students can spend in cadaver labs.
Virtual cadaver programs can range from basic tablet applications to complete 3-D dissection tables. Designers build them from scans of real cadavers. As scanning technology improves, so do virtual cadaver programs.
The growing trend has its critics, but proponents of virtual cadavers say they are a valuable teaching tool not meant to replace human cadaver training, but supplement it.
The biggest advantage to virtual cadavers, proponents say, is that they make the study of anatomy possible at any time, from anywhere. There’s only so much time students can spend in cadaver labs. The virtual programs provide a bridge between lab visits. Material learned in the lab can be reviewed as often as needed on a virtual device.
“They are cadavers that students can carry with them, is one way to think about it,” said Jon Jackson, assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology in the Department of Basic Biomedical Sciences at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine.
“It allows us to sit in our living rooms, or if your are a student, your apartment, and you get to hang out at your table and essentially do the same kind of dissection work we ask them to do in the lab,” said Jackson, who has a doctorate in anatomy and cell biology.
“They are cadavers that students can carry with them, is one way to think about it.”
However, there are some limitations to the virtual cadavers, said W. Paul Brown, consulting associate professor at Stanford School of Medicine’s Division of Clinical Anatomy.
“There are some things you can do with a cadaver that you can’t do virtually. You can lift up a muscle and look underneath it, or you can follow a blood vessel. You can actually feel things, you can have those sensations and wrap your hands around an organ to help with your mental modeling.”
Those experiences are very valuable to students, Brown said.
The virtual cadaver program at Stanford was Brown’s brainchild. His idea became the virtual dissection table, developed by Anatomage in San Jose, Calif. Other virtual cadaver software, such as tablet apps, only give a limited view of the body. The dissection table shows the entire body on one screen, in 3-D.
The virtual dissection table gives students the ability to look at the human body in multiple layers that can be viewed at one time, or pealed back to focus in on certain layers, Brown said. The virtual cadavers have also created opportunities for students to diagnose and learn about certain conditions. With a library of virtual patients, students can look at two data sets at one time to compare normal scans to those with abnormalities. You can’t do that with real cadavers, he said.
When the program was first introduced at Stanford, there were a couple of “traditional anatomists” who didn’t see the need for the virtual cadavers, according to Brown. But they slowly changed their minds once they saw the program in action.
The Body Library
Stanley Jacobson, professor of anatomy and cellular biology at Tufts University School of Medicine, has been building a library of virtual patients for several years. His students aren’t required to use the virtual patients. Some students use them, some do not, he said.
Once those scans are made, they are always there for future use. Students can examine the virtual patients to determine cause of death or to see how certain conditions affect the body. Jacobson has virtual scans of a malaria patient, for example – something many American doctors wouldn’t see throughout their entire careers. As more scans are added, the library of conditions and abnormalities grows.
A Healthy Supplement
Virtual cadavers aren’t necessarily better or worse than real ones, Jacobson said. In cases where cadavers simply aren’t available, either because they are cost prohibitive, or against the law (some foreign countries forbid the use of cadavers), a virtual cadaver could be an acceptable alternative.
It could also allow some schools to incorporate anatomy training in to programs for which it was traditionally not part of the curriculum.
Like Brown, Jackson said he would be critical of any medical school program that used only virtual cadavers. But virtual cadavers could make entry-level anatomy education possible for more students, such as undergrads. It could also allow some schools to incorporate anatomy training in to programs for which it was traditionally not part of the curriculum, Jackson said.
Jacobson said use of virtual cadavers can extend beyond medical students, too. Some physicians use them for patient education, he said. It’s one thing to tell a patient what their torn ACL looks like, he said. It’s another thing to show them.