Innovation and Change in Anatomy Education During COVID-19

Laboratory dissection of human body donors has long been the centerpiece of medical student anatomy education. Is there a better way to learn the intricately organized complexity of human anatomy than to trace out the three-dimensional layout with your own hands?


There are certainly available and emerging alternative options to classic cadaveric dissection. With a shortage of trained anatomists being an issue before the COVID-19 pandemic, some programs have already moved away from traditional anatomy cadaver labs. Couple this with the necessity for social distancing during the time of COVID-19, the new and non-traditional methods of teaching anatomy will take on a larger role.

Textbooks, flashcards, and lectures have always been a part of anatomy teaching. Medical schools and anatomists have been creative in their teaching innovations during the pandemic, fast-tracking newer methods that have yet to be fully incorporated or mastered.  Livestreamed dissections and interactive anatomy software, already popular, have become imperative for the majority of programs. I suspect magnetic resonance (MR) and other radiologic images will become more prevalent in teaching anatomy. Melting through high-resolution stacks of MR images is an excellent way to gain appreciation for the three-dimensional relationships of various structures. Newer educational innovations such as augmented and virtual reality, social media, and 3D printing are also becoming more important.

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Prior to COVID-19, there was already an ongoing educational debate over the necessity for traditional cadaver labs in medical education. Those in favor of doing away with cadaver labs praise the quality of pre-recorded dissections, the massive upside of technology in virtually recreation of anatomy (AR, VR, 3D display software, etc.), and the diminishing pool of trained anatomists to teach a growing pool of medical students. Those in favor of continuing with traditional cadaver labs praise the hands-on skills learned during dissection, emotionally and ethically important relationship between the student and human body donor, and the delicate variations of structure between each body that hasn’t been recreated with technology alternatives.

Both sides have valid arguments. Both sides are also hindered by muddy, conflicting, and often subjective or biased data to support their case. I think the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, with human body donors and technological educational tools playing supplementary roles in an evolving nature of anatomy education.

What does this mean for medical students? You will likely have to rely more heavily on extra resources outside of the anatomy lab. Thankfully, there are endless options available to meet your unique learning style.

It will be fun to see the creative tools and techniques that arise from these unique obstacles and pave the way forward in anatomy education.

Below is a (surely incomplete) list of articles addressing the topic of anatomy education in medical schools during COVID-19.

What changes do you foresee in anatomy education in medical school? Comment to share your thoughts below.

Back to more pre-clinical resources.

Alan Gambril, MD
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