Reflections from the Dean: Teaching anatomy through tech and touch

News & Events

Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D.

Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D.

Studying the structure of the human body is one of the most important courses for health care professionals.

All physicians remember their first day in the anatomy lab. We enter the laboratory with anxiety, fear, wonder and awe.

We also enter the anatomy lab with a clear understanding of the sacredness of the human body, and a clear appreciation of the sacredness of the covenant we share with our first patient-an anatomical donor whose final act was to donate their body for the training of health care professionals. We remember that first day with extreme gratitude to the generosity of the donor and their ultimate gift to medical education.

Last week we honored these donors-our students' very first patients-during our annual Anatomical Donation Memorial Service at Walton's Sierra Chapel. Every summer, UNR Med first-year students express their appreciation to the donors' families and friends during a memorial service featuring song, speech and poetry.

The memorial service provides a fitting tribute and closure to the yearlong anatomy course and provides medical students with the opportunity to show their appreciation for the great gift their donors have made to anatomical research and education. The School of Medicine and our students invite the family and friends of donors to attend the service to learn more about the anatomical donation program and gain a sense of closure for the loss of their loved one.

Through the anatomical donation program at UNR Med, which began in 1987, donors teach medical students about far more than gross anatomy. Cadavers posthumously teach medical students how to care, detach, work as a team and develop a sense of curiosity and discovery.

Many medical schools solely provide anatomy training through technology. While we believe there is no substitute for true human touch, it is important for us to acknowledge that technology can enhance the ever-evolving study of human anatomy.

As of last fall, the anatomy lab now includes an Anatomage life-sized digital dissection table, made possible through a generous gift from the William N. Pennington Foundation. Not meant as a substitute for, but rather a supplement to human cadavers, life-sized cadavers are revolutionizing anatomy in three-dimensional high definition with the click of a button or touch of a screen that resembles and oversized computer tablet mounted on a wheeled stretcher.

The Anotamage Table allows medical students to examine a virtual human body layer-by-layer, perform digital dissections and identify anatomical features with ultra-high quality visualization that provides instant access to photorealistic human anatomy.

In the traditional cadaver course of dissection, whether removing a vein, artery or organ, only so much cutting can be done and internal or underside views can be hidden or blocked. By pausing the digital dissection, students are able to interact with the dissection, turn it around and look at in three-dimensions.

Second-year medical student Miguel Gonzales, Class of 2022, said the use of both cadavers and technology provides a beneficial blend of instruction in anatomy education.

"I strongly believe there is no substitute for having actual cadavers, but the Anatomage Table offers supplemental instruction that cannot be achieved with a traditional cadaver," Gonzalez said. "The ability to view a perfect, digital cadaver allows me to see and learn everything I need to know to build a solid anatomy foundation for working on a more challenging, traditional cadaver."

But the Anatomage Table is a supplement to, not a replacement for, traditional dissection. It cannot at all replace the emotional power of understanding the life and death of a cadaver donor, or the educational value of memorializing the donor's gift with poetry, song and eulogies, or the professional value of learning how to thank the family for their loved one's ultimate gift.


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Office: (775) 784-6006

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Office: (775) 682-9254

The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Released: Tuesday June 18, 2019 @ 8:00 AM