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What’s it Like Using a Digital Anatomy Table at Med School

Cadavers are one of the well-known, if not stranger, ways of teaching. Most students come to medical school excited to do dissection, but not all of them do. I go to Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth; one that doesn’t use any cadavers in their teaching. I know that this is a concern for some people, so I thought that I would share my thoughts following my first year without cadavers.

What’s the technological alternative to cadavers?

Peninsula have an alternative to using cadavers called the Anatomage table. This electronic table can display two full sized cadavers (male and female) that were medically imaged and cut into sections. These cadavers were then digitally reconstructed in the form of three-dimensional digital images.

With a swipe of your finger, the Anatomage models can be rotated, moved and zoomed in on at your convenience. There are also views where you can strip down the layers of skin, muscle and vasculature to focus on a particular topic. This table, combined with volunteers that act as model patients, ensures that both surface and internal anatomy is covered during teaching sessions.

What are the benefits of this technology?

The Anatomage table resides in the Life Science Resource Centre; a shared, open access learning space also used for teaching. This means that it can be used by lecturers in teaching sessions, or by students in their own time. There is no need to have academic staff around for basic anatomy learning, with the table having labelling and quizzing features. If there is something that someone doesn’t understand, they can spend some extra time with the table, something that medical schools that use dissections couldn’t offer.

It appears that not using cadavers is a less expensive way of learning. The maintenance of the laboratories and time needed to set up cadavers will cost the university significant sums of money. Whilst this doesn’t directly affect students, it could be that the money could be used on other teaching resources for students.

We also have dedicated sessions for teaching medical imaging. This has ensured that we are able to understand the basics of interpreting medical images early. During our foundation training, we won’t be able to pull out a scalpel and start carving up patients to see what is wrong with them!

Can you replace the real thing?

As much as I enjoy learning in this way, it does have its drawbacks. Some would argue that there is no replacement for learning the old fashioned way. Learning through dissection is obviously a much more hands-on experience. This will appeal more to some people, depending on the way you learn. By having a real body that you can touch and manoeuvre, it may help people to understand how anatomical structures lie in relation to others. This may then be transferable when thinking about localising pathology in a patient more than a two-dimensional image.

There is also the fact that every person is different. Whilst you can see the differences between one male and one female model using the Anatomage table, there are anatomical variances that won’t be seen. On the other hand, as mentioned previously, we won’t be able to see internal anatomy. Aside from surgeons and minor operations, most doctors will never make major incisions, which means that most doctors will gain no extra experience from doing dissection.

There is also the unfortunate truth that, at some point, training doctors will encounter death. It could be argued that it is better to be exposed to this early in your career. This allows time to get used to it, or, if you can’t, allow you to reevaluate your career choice early.

It could also be underwhelming to learn without cadavers. The exclusiveness of learning using the body is an exciting prospect that most people will never encounter. By not having the chance to do this, students could feel like they are missing out. However, it might be more appealing to learn about anatomy with technology instead – everyone is different.

Both teaching with and without cadavers produces doctors of the required standard; it is simply a matter of preference. This decision shouldn’t make or break your decision to study at a specific medical school, but you should know what each school does before applying.

Words: Toby Ball

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