Medical school brings a virtual touch to anatomy studies

In this Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, photo, Dr. Jeffrey Fahl, chair of the anatomy department at UNLV, shows the Review-Journal how a virtual anatomy table works at UNLV's School of Medicine in Las Vegas. (AP)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Dr. Neil Haycocks twists and turns the 3-D image to review the head and neck CT scan from a variety of angles.

Even without being a doctor, it’s easy to tell from the clear, virtual image that the man has suffered a serious injury.

“I don’t know exactly what happened to this person, but my guess is that they were struck with some sort of blunt object,” Haycocks said as he pointed out a fractured mandible and a depressed bone.

As he sliced through the patient’s skull to further examine his injuries, Haycocks demonstrated a crucial benefit to the virtual anatomy tables at University of Nevada Las Vegas’s new School of Medicine — the ability to examine a patient without destroying vital organs.

With a touch of a button, the skull was whole again.

The touchscreen tables, which replace cadavers that would be found in a traditional anatomy lab, are just one example of the innovative curriculum the first class of 60 students will encounter when they set foot in the school on July 17.


UNLV won’t be the first school to use anatomy tables, reported the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Dr. Jeffrey Fahl, chair of the anatomy department at UNLV, shows the Review-Journal how a virtual anatomy table works at UNLV's School of Medicine in Las Vegas. (AP)

Dr. Jeffrey Fahl, chair of the anatomy department at UNLV, shows the Review-Journal how a virtual anatomy table works at UNLV’s School of Medicine in Las Vegas. (AP)

But it’s the school’s commitment to teaching the subject that sets it apart, according to Dr. Ellen Cosgrove, vice dean for academic affairs and education.

“We’ve decided to make the virtual anatomy the backbone and the framework of our anatomy instruction,” she said.

Haycocks, who learned human anatomy in a traditional lab, said cadaver dissection is limited in its educational benefits.

“You spend hours cutting through tissues, trying to find this or that,” Haycocks said. “Sometimes it’s well preserved, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes you accidentally destroy whatever it is you’re looking for, and sometimes you’re just lost — you never find out what’s going on. It’s a very lengthy and time consuming process.”

Haycocks previously taught at a college where he oversaw a cadaver lab. He said that he loved working with the students and seeing their reactions as they cut open a human body.

“That’s enjoyable for me at least, but it’s really inefficient,” he said.

The technology can display images of the body from a variety of perspectives and angles, including 2-D cross-section and 3-D rotation.

With a slight tap, Haycocks lit up the screen with millions of tiny blue channels, illustrating a patient’s veins.

And in terms of instruction, virtual anatomy is beneficial because everyone gets the same information. It’s also less time consuming and costs much less than a traditional cadaver lab, which runs upward of $10 million.

“If you talk to most people who teach anatomy nowadays, they would agree, perhaps grudgingly, that in well under 100 years, nobody is going to cadaver dissection anymore,” Haycocks said.


Haycocks sees several benefits from a curriculum standpoint, but he also points out a few flaws to the system.

“For me, the main disadvantage is that you don’t have that first patient experience with a real human body,” he said.

Given that a first patient often resonates with students, others in the medical community might also question the virtual anatomy approach.

“A lot of education in general, and medical education in particular, there’s a lot of inertia,” Haycocks said. “Things have been done a certain way for the last 150 years, and by God, the faculty had to do it a certain way so they’re going to make the students do it a certain way.”

Haycocks said a fourth-year elective is in the works that would give students the opportunity to learn at a month-long boot camp to become an autopsy technician.

“If you want to practice cutting human tissue without any of the rules of surgery, it’s hard to beat someone who died the day before,” Haycocks said.

Cosgrove said it might take a student in a traditional lab an hour of dissection to view a particular nerve and what path it takes.

At UNLV, students will be able to go through several virtual anatomy stations that have specific learning objectives with problems for them to solve.

“At the end of the two hours, you emerge from that experience with a wealth of information,” she said.