Feb 15 2017

Medical Students Practice Critical Skills on Digital Cadavers

Virtual reality tools prepare future medical professionals for complex procedures.

As a growing number of medical schools bring virtual reality into the classroom, students are finding it an effective way to learn complex subject matter, such as anatomy, that’s often easier to understand with hands-on practice.

At Rush University in Chicago, for example, medical students studying ophthalmology are using a VR simulator to practice cataract surgery on virtual patients. A few hundred miles away, at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, faculty teach anatomy, pharmacology and other complex subjects with the help of special headsets that display “mixed reality” holograms. And at Western University of Health Sciences in California, students prepping for careers in podiatry, nursing and other medical fields use 3D glasses and electronic styluses to “dissect” and manipulate lifelike organs in virtual bodies.

VR and similar technologies, including augmented reality, provide a “very effective way to teach anatomy in particular,” says Dr. Robert Hasel, associate dean of simulation, immersion and digital learning at Western’s dental school.

Because most medical schools don’t have access to real cadavers, he notes, historically students have learned from photographs, drawings and lengthy lectures. That’s not how things work at Western’s Virtual Reality Learning Center, where students use tools like the Anatomage Table. This virtual dissection table and its digital cadaver let students learn anatomy from every possible angle.

“When they come in here, it’s entirely hands-on,” Hasel says. “They’re working in small groups, peer to peer, solving problems and moving from station to station. They’re so heavily engaged, it can be hard to get them to leave.”

It’s a similar story at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where second-year medical students in a course on geriatrics can use an Oculus Rift system and VR software from Embodied Labs to immerse themselves in the experience of an elderly man named Alfred.

“The idea is to help them empathize with their patients,” says Carrie Shaw, the founder of Embodied Labs. “It’s a reminder of how the world looks from their perspective.”

Samantha Bond, a visiting clinical assistant professor in UIC’s College of Applied Health Sciences and, like Shaw, a recent graduate of its biomedical visualization master’s degree program, predicts it won’t be long before VR is common in classrooms across the country.

“VR is in this incredibly wild and exciting place right now, especially when it comes to education,” she says. “When you put students into that virtual environment, the subject they’re studying becomes a story about themselves. It can be an unbelievably efficient way to learn.” Add to that the fact that the technology is becoming more affordable, “and I think the possibilities are limitless,” Bond says.

Hasel, who previously directed a digital anatomy-focused pilot project at Stanford University School of Medicine, agrees. He’s seen VR technologies evolve and advance significantly in recent years and has no reason to think that evolution won’t continue.

“I think we’ll eventually see VR at the core of all educational processes,” he says. “How long it will take to get there, I don’t know, but I’m sure that day is not too far off.”


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