Accelerating Change in Medical Education

Why the virtual anatomy lab won’t replace the real thing

Gross anatomy has been a standard part of the early years of medical education for generations. Typically taught using cadavers that are dissected, the class offers students their first hands-on lessons in the body’s structure and the organs that exist beneath its surface.

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As technology evolves, the ways in which medical students learn and physicians practice do as well. The University of Connecticut School of Medicine (UConn) is one of a growing number of medical schools embracing those changes by expanding the gross anatomy experience to the benefit of medical trainees.

Here are a few things you should know about UConn’s Virtual Anatomy Lab (VAL) and the curricular changes it is inspiring to a foundational aspect of medical education.

A different point of view

The VAL is outfitted with two virtual cadaver tables that resemble oversized tablet-computing devices. Each displays life-size human bodies—one male and one female. Students can dissect the virtual cadavers by making cuts using their fingers on the touch screen.

Unlike real cadavers, the digital versions offer students the ability to navigate around the body with ease and see organ systems from views that would be nearly impossible on an actual human, according to John R. Harrison, PhD, the director of  UConn’s virtual and human anatomy labs.

For example, using the virtual cadavers, students “can make a slice through the chest that will give them what is called a long axis parasternal view of the heart,” Harrison said. “Occasionally, the standard views aren’t the best way to look at an organ. For the heart, for example—which is sort of tipped on its side with respect to the body axis—making your own cut is a great way to visualize what the body will look like when they generate ultrasound views.”

Imaging, anatomy go hand in hand

Although they are becoming increasingly essential areas of expertise for physicians, radiology and imaging have often been an afterthought in anatomical education. By incorporating radiology workstations and ultrasound sessions into the lessons taught in the VAL, UConn is working to change that.

“We are trying to get them to take that anatomy knowledge with them into the imaging realm, and it works,” Harrison said. “We are seeing students being much more comfortable with interpreting medical images.”

Digital dissection doesn’t replace real thing

The point of the VAL is to supplement cadaveric anatomy, not replace it.

“The tactile experience of being able to touch and feel, and see, how close these structures are firsthand, those are experiences we didn’t want to let go of,” Harrison said. “It’s something that really stays with the student.”

This early exposure to real-life anatomy “becomes a reference point for the rest of their careers,” Harrison said.

Students embrace the technology

In terms of user-friendliness, students have had very little trouble getting acclimated to the hardware in the VAL.

“The tables are child’s play to them,” Harrison said. “You don’t need to explain anything. They are native digital learners.”

The first group of students to go through the virtual anatomy lab are now seeing it pay off in the clinical realm.

“For early learners, there’s a lot on their plate, so the Virtual Anatomy Lab represents one more thing they need to learn and prepare for,” he said. “But I think having gone through it, they now realize how well it’s prepared them to enter the clinical realm.

UConn is one of 32 member schools of the AMA Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium that are working together to create the medical school of the future and transform physician training.