Why Virtual Cadavers Are a Wise Investment for Medical Schools

A solid understanding of human anatomy is the foundation of medical success. Cadaver dissection has long been a rite of passage for all first and second year medical students, but the medical industry has been shifting towards incorporating technology into their anatomy education curriculums, as well. Tools such as virtual reality anatomy education (virtual cadavers) are increasing in popularity and have already proven to be an invaluable tool in the classroom. (Related: VR medical training, AR to teach anatomy, virtual reality medical education)

While many doctors are quick to point out that VR’s role should be to complement traditional cadavers, not completely replace them, human cadavers bring a set of challenges to the table that can be solved (partially or completely) by using virtual cadavers. Heizenrader aims to strike a balance between tradition and technology, providing aspiring doctors with another tool to help save lives.

Cadavers are in short supply

Medical school student enrollment numbers are on the rise. The Association of American Medical Colleges reports that enrollment for the 2019-20 school year is 52% higher than that of the 2002-03 school year. That is to say nothing of physician assistant and nurse practitioner programs that are also increasing enrollments. For the sake of effective hands-on learning, most medical schools allot one cadaver to every four to six students. And while the federal government does not monitor whole body donations in the United States, it is estimated by researchers that fewer than 20,000 Americans donate their bodies to medical research and training each year. And the U.S. is not unique in this shortage. According to the Journal of Association of  American Medical Colleges, only 32% of countries that use cadavers in their medical anatomy education exclusively use donated bodies. 66% of countries are also forced to procure unclaimed bodies in their education programs. 

Cadavers are expensive

Cadavers are an extraordinary expense for medical schools. Cadaver labs have extensive government and health regulatory standards to meet. Building a new cadaver lab that meets these requirements can cost medical schools tens of millions of dollars. And the expense of buying fresh cadavers each year adds up, as well. Although they are the result of a generous gift of body donors, medical schools pay for transportation, embalming, and storage of cadavers. Each whole body cadaver can cost between $2,000 – $3,000 to purchase. Building a virtual cadaver lab costs a small fraction of the regular lab price, and yearly student licenses to VR anatomy curriculum is considerably less expensive than purchasing whole body cadavers.

Cadavers cannot be reused

When considering both the shortage and price of traditional cadavers, the “regeneration” feature of virtual cadavers becomes an important factor in the decision to incorporate technology in the anatomy education process. It takes hours to clean the overlying tissue off a structure in a human cadaver. A quick slip or mistaken cut can lead to the destruction of the organ or system, which hinders the education of all the students reliant on that cadaver to learn the material. With a virtual cadaver, it’s easy to backtrack from mistakes and avoid wasting of hours of work. When the fear of making a mistake is removed from the learning process, students tend to spend more time exploring and learning.