Is Using Real Bodies The Only Way to Teach Anatomy?
In recent years, newspapers in the UK, Germany and North America have been reporting an unexpected problem for medical schools. The rising cost of a funeral, which can run to as much as $10,000 US, is prompting more people than ever to consider donating their bodies to medical science after they die, rather than opt to be buried or cremated. Back in 2012, a German University was having 20 enquiries per month from people interested in donating their body, when their requirements were only for 35 annually. The Human Tissue Authority in the UK receives over 2,000 annual enquiries from potential donors, and in the United States and Canada, medical schools actively advertise the opportunity to make a medical donation. Many academics argue that there is simply no substitute for students learning hands-on with a cadaver, and that this is the only way for students to experience not only where in the body organs are located, but to find out how they feel and relate to one another. It’s certainly the way in which anatomy has been taught for centuries, at least in Western Europe.
Although Universities in Western Europe and North America might have more offers of body donations than they can handle, the situation in other parts of the world is quite different. The topic of organ donation and donations of bodies to medical science has been under discussion in the Roman Catholic church for decades. Body donation is permitted by the Catholic Church, as long as the body is treated with respect and dignity, and buried after dissection according to Catholic protocols. This caveat about “respect and dignity” may be a deterrent to many potential donations. Other religions take an even harder line on body donation. Islamic scholars are divided on whether organ donation is acceptable in their religion, but most agree that the donation of a whole body to medical science is not acceptable. Jewish law takes a similar position, that organ donation after death is acceptable, whole body donation is not. Many students, living in parts of the world with varying religious and moral codes, therefore just do not have the same access to cadavers as students in Europe or North America.
Alternatives to Cadavers in Anatomy Teaching
Traditional methods of charts, books and diagrams still have their place in anatomy teaching, and in many parts of the world this is still the predominant method of teaching anatomy, especially in the earlier years of medical school. Skeletons and other anatomical models of organs are also still widely used. Over recent decades, advances in computer technology have revolutionized the opportunities for interactive learning, and universities and medical schools now also have a plethora of computer programs, online learning courses and even smartphone apps at their disposal to assist their students’ learning. One of the most interactive tools on the market however is the Sectra Table, which offers as close an experience as possible to interacting with an actual body for students. Images loaded into the table’s memory are built from CT and MRI scans of real patient cases and not just a human anatomy atlas, and as these are rendered in 3D, students can interact with them, zoom in and out, remove layers, and even dissect the image with a virtual knife.
The Sectra Table, which is at the cutting edge of technology, is also a useful tool for experienced doctors and surgeons who are learning new techniques or who want to brush up on skills before undertaking a procedure which is not routinely performed.
Medical Professionals can also expand their knowledge by connecting to collaborations all around the world via the Sectra Table's Educational Portal. This type of teaching goes far beyond traditional 'chalk & talk' learning. Real patient data can be presented and analyzed, giving a unique problem-based learning experience.
Future of Anatomy Teaching
As with everything in the technological world, as more users adopt the technology, prices come down. It appears obvious that interactive tables have so many advantages over the use of cadavers; there are no ethical considerations, tables are easier to store, tables can be easily reprogrammed for whatever feature the student is learning and professors can assess a student’s progress with built in quizzes and tests. Will interactive learning tables ever provide a complete substitute for traditional learning with cadavers? Probably not. But in situations where people are reluctant to donate bodies for religious or ethical reasons they make a very good alternative. They can also be used alongside cadavers to complement learning and offer different experiences to medical students other doctors. Several other compatible products are available which give students hands-on experience in suturing and other techniques, allowing students to get practice before refining their skills on real patients.