The first semester of medical school aims to lay a foundation of knowledge on which medical students can grow into physicians. Among the key foundational pieces laid in those opening months of training is a familiarity and understanding of the human body, often introduced through anatomy.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted much of the opening months of medical school from in-person learning to online learning for many preclinical medical students. Still, at some schools, when it comes to anatomy, there is no digital replacement for the real thing.

“At the Heritage College, cadaveric anatomy is a priority,” said Isaac J. Kirstein, DO, a dean at the Cleveland campus of Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OUHCOM), which is a member school of the AMA’s Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium. “There are two key reasons for this. First, the cadaver is the medical students’ first patient; the students engage with the humanism of the experience, and it forms their professional identity. Second, to truly learn osteopathic principles requires an understanding of anatomy that simulation alone cannot provide.”

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Safely offering anatomy

Opting to offer in-person anatomy meant putting in place several safety protocols. Students spend less time in labs—roughly a half day per week—and learn in smaller groups. Instead of performing dissections, cadavers are dissected prior to students arriving in the lab.

“There’s a lot to be said for learning the art of dissection to help students pick up some basic techniques,” Dr. Kirstein said. “We are confident that can be learned during their second year.”

OUHCOM first-year medical students began anatomy in late August. Even without dissection, working with a cadaver, rather than attempting to learn the body via some sort of simulation medium, has proven valuable.

“It’s really important that we learn the 3D aspect to a body versus simply learning from a textbook,” said Ashley Aslo, a first-year student at OU. “Trying to conceptualize in our brains, it’s really important to understand that there’s layering. And on the other hand, not just science but also being introduced to our first patient and understanding that these people donated their bodies for us to learn from—learning how to respect them was really important. By doing anatomy in person, we have learned all of those aspects.”

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As far as any potential safety concerns students might have, Aslo said the systems put in place have largely negated them for her.

“It’s a scary time,” Aslo said, but she believes “the university has done an amazing job of adhering by social distancing rules while providing the opportunity to get a good education.”

Medical schools will continue to adjust to disruptions related to COVID-19, balancing safety concerns with ensuring that students are appropriately trained to care for patients, families and communities.

The AMA has curated a selection of resources to help residents, medical students and faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic manage the shifting timelines, cancellations and adjustments to testing, rotations and other events at this time.

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