One of the ways we might be able to fix the problem of body generalisation in medicine, as I discussed in my previous blog post, is with virtual anatomy programs. Today medical students are already beginning to use complex computer programs that can imitate real dissections in their anatomy lessons.
In some ways these programs are even better than the real thing. Students have the ability to remove muscles, bones and veins, as well as rotate the subject three dimensionally through 360°. These programs are also being fed information from real patient cases that have been logged in the Searchable Digital Anatomical Library; a project pioneered by Sakti Srivastava and her colleagues at the Stanford Medical School.
Indeed, replacing more traditional methods of learning with virtual technology does not seem to have an impact on how well students learn. In 2011, Anthony Codd and Bipasha Choudhury performed an experiment in which they compared the two methods of anatomical teaching, virtual and traditional, by testing students taught by the different systems (see end for link). There was almost no difference in test scores between the two methods, but those who used the virtual reality simulations came out slightly on top. It seems virtual reality could be a very effective replacement for traditional learning in medicine.
Still, the traditional use of cadavers in medical teaching has obvious benefits; this is the only way in which students are able to learn how the muscles feel and react in the flesh before they go into real surgical situations.
It has not always been possible to teach with real cadavers and this is where we start seeing the standard images and models that we discussed last time appearing in the classroom.
Many of you may have heard the infamous story of Burke and Hare, the men who murdered people to sell their bodies to science. The short supply of cadavers meant medical schools would pay handsomely for fresh corpses! Other less enterprising individuals turned to grave-robbing as the money to be gained far outweighed the danger of being caught.
There is still a shortage in the number of people who donate their bodies to science. However, virtual technology could take over from standardised images as the alternative.
“The virtual isn’t the same as the real, what we want to do is leverage the best of both. It’s not really, ‘Is one better than the other?’ Rather it’s, ‘What can we do with the two combined?’”
– David Gaba, associate dean for immersive and simulation-based learning at Stanford.
What indeed? This technology is currently using a variety of case files to teach students about specific clinical problems, but it could do so much more!
With the right programming we could replace our unchanging textbook images with software that gives the student a new body to look at each time (within a range of human shapes and sizes). This would mean that students could learn anatomy across the full spectrum of different body types.
Ultimately, this could be extended to practical surgery sessions with virtual reality headsets. This would let students practice locating organs within differently shaped and sized bodies during surgery.
All we need is information on the possible range of human body types and a good programmer.
(The full Codd and Choudhury article can be found at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ase.214/full )
(Information on the use of virtual anatomy programs at the Stanford Medical School can be found at http://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2011/05/body-image-computerized-table-lets-students-do-virtual-dissection.html )