Last spring I introduced the school's intentions to teach anatomy using "virtual technology" rather than using traditional gross dissection of a human body, which remains the preferred method for many medical schools today. As the school launches with our charter class this summer, I look forward to this exciting area of our curriculum coming into practice.
In planning our curriculum, we chose to embrace several forward-thinking principles to provide students the foundation needed to succeed over the next 50 years as practicing physicians. Students graduating from UNLV School of Medicine must excel in these areas:
- Work well in teams
- Able to extract the most current and relevant information from the medical literature on all topics
- Be an excellent communicator
- Possess crucial doctoring skills, such as at taking a patient history, completing a physical exam, and asking the right questions
- Embrace the newest technology
The latter principle led us to select virtual anatomy as our preferred method of teaching anatomy.
UNLV School of Medicine students will learn anatomy using virtual anatomy tables with large, interactive touch screens. Primed with a library of images, such as X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and pathology slides, the virtual anatomy table is able to display body images in a wide variety of perspectives. Users will be able dissect, rotate, slice, and reassemble organs and other anatomic structures as needed. They will download case studies of real patients and examine them in a variety of ways. They also can explore the
histology (microscopic anatomy) and histopathology (microscopic pathology) of the organ systems being studied.
The high-tech tables provide a level of flexibility and customization not typically present in traditional gross anatomy. Despite specialized embalming procedures, many cadaveric structures are difficult to identify due to suboptimal preservation. Dissection also usually proceeds according to an "outside-in" approach, which is inherently limiting. Furthermore, organs and structures that have been removed or otherwise destroyed cannot be added back.
Unlike cadavers, the table is fully interactive. Faculty and students control the image by simply touching or dragging one or more fingers across the screen. Multiple windows allow for three-dimensional structures to be correlated directly with axial, sagittal, and coronal planes, which will allow students to become skilled at interpreting the two-dimensional imaging studies that are ubiquitous in modern medical practice.
Many medical schools require students to devote approximately 150 curriculum hours in gross anatomy labs. Completing these dissections is a significant time investment for the amount of learning gained.
When I was in medical school, CT scanning was in the experimental phase and MRI did not yet exist. Current and future medical students are much more comfortable with computer technology than previous generations, which means they're less likely to be intimidated by this unique approach to learning.
What do the Sectra tables look like?
It's a large, super high-resolution computer screen. As for the "virtual" bodies contained within, they are actual people who donated their bodies to science. The bodies were frozen, cut in very thin cross sections, photographed, digitized and then put back together. The cross sections correspond to the images of a CT scan, but on screen, the entire body looks as it did in real life.
The interactive tables give students a blank canvas for piecing together certain areas of the anatomy. For instance, they can build up the chest by starting with the bones followed by the lungs, blood vessels, heart and, finally, the muscles. Should a student struggle to grasp the process, the tables make it easy because students can view it over and over again.
Parts of the body also can be color coded for easier identification. These colors then appear on a cut plane (similar to a CT scan) to the left of the body view. This allows students to compare exactly what they see in any part of the body to how it would be viewed in a CT scan.
Virtual Anatomy faculty
The faculty members who will teach anatomy and pathology courses using the interactive tables are Jeffrey Fahl, MD; Kyle Petersen, PhD; and Neil Haycocks, MD, PhD. Dr. Fahl is a pediatric gastroenterologist and the director of our anatomy program. Dr. Petersen is a professor emeritus of anatomy from Emory University who is helping to develop the content of the anatomy course. Dr. Haycocks is a pathologist with a specialty in hematology, and the director of biomedical science integration. He is responsible for organizing much of the first 18 months of the curriculum, known as the basic sciences and will use the tables to teach gross anatomy, normal histology and histopathology.
Fahl and Haycocks are planning detailed sessions designed to thoroughly teach students how a human body functions in both a normal and diseased state.
Other anatomy experiences
As excited as we are about virtual anatomy, we have not completely abandoned the traditional method. Potential surgeons who want a dissection experience will have the opportunity during their fourth-year electives. We also will provide opportunities at the Clark County Coroner's Office for students to learn how a pathologist examines a deceased body. Since these bodies aren't fixed in formalin, the anatomy will be easier to view, and more discussion will happen relating to the chest, abdomen, and brain since those regions are of special importance in medicolegal death investigations.
I am truly excited about our virtual anatomy curriculum. This state-of-the art approach will assist the preparation of our students for medical practice with a sophisticated, three-dimensional understanding of the structure of the human body.
Please watch the video below of Dr. Jeff Fahl, who further explains the benefits of virtual anatomy.