Are cadavers dying? Medical schools turn to simulation

New York University medical students are moving beyond the traditional cadaver of anatomy class to dissect a virtual model made by BioDigital Systems, reports the New York Times. It’s pretty cool, but hardly surprising that advanced 3-D graphics and simulation technology are making their way into health care. Memory, processing speed and rendering techniques have gotten to the point where the building blocks are accessible and even commonplace in other parts of the economy, such as entertainment.

The creators have big ambitions:

BioDigital plans to develop the virtual cadaver further on its new medical education Web site,, with the aim of providing a searchable, customizable map of the human body… In the coming months, the company plans to offer its code to… health Web sites that want to embed images of the respiratory system, or to doctors who want to show animations of prostate cancer surgery to patients.

“We wanted to use our data visualization to improve knowledge of complex health topics,” [designer John] Qualter said. His firm hopes to position the virtual body as the health education equivalent of Google Maps — available as a free, easy-to-use public Web site and in an upgraded, fee-based professional version.

“We want to become a scalable model,” Mr. Qualter said, “a Google Earth for the human body.”

They or a competitor have a good shot at it and I’m sure they’ll be plenty of interest among the general public.

The Times concluded the article in a predictable way, with assertions that are likely to be proved wrong over the next 10 or 20 years:

“I don’t think this will ever replace cadavers,” said [first year student Susanna] Jeurling, 24. “There’s something about being able to hold [an organ] and turn it in your hand.”

Administrators at the medical school say they have no plans to phase out dissection, an educational method that dates back to the Ptolemaic era. The 3-D digital human body is merely a complementary teaching method, said Dr. Marc M. Triola, associate dean for educational informatics.

Are these folks really so short-sighted that they can’t envision a time in the not-so-distant future that an artificial cadaver will feel exactly like the real thing?

January 9, 2012

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