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Can Virtual Reality Replace the Cadaver Lab?

Colleges are starting to use virtual reality platforms to augment or replace cadaver labs, saving universities hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Medical students at a growing number of colleges are using virtual reality platforms to augment or replace cadaver labs, providing students with more opportunities to practice skills while saving universities hundreds of thousands of dollars.

According to a survey by the American Association of Anatomists, the nation's 150 medical schools average about 149 hours of training in first-year gross anatomy, about two-thirds of which is spent with cadaver dissection. 
“Cadavers provide a realistic experience for students, but they cause concerns with biohazards, availability, and expense,” said Daniel Buchbinder, professor and chief of the division of maxillofacial surgery in the department of otolaryngology at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York. 
In response, some medical schools are beginning to leverage virtual reality platforms, which professors say can also provide very realistic experiences without the costs or other downsides of using real cadavers. 
Robert Hasel, associate dean of Simulation, Immersion and Digital Learning at the Western University of Health Sciences (WesternU), a private medical school located in Pomona, Calif., has been a proponent of virtual reality for medical training for many years. 
“I’ve long been on a mission to make learning as exciting as playing video games, and I’ve been working toward that for years,” said Hasel. “But the technology that was needed to pull this all together has really just fully emerged in the last couple of years.”
Hasel was instrumental in making the new J and K Virtual Reality Learning Center at WesternU a reality. The center is now open, and administrators say WesternU is the first university in the nation to provide this level of virtual reality training to students. 
Students from every program at WesternU – dentistry, osteopathic medicine, veterinary medicine, physical therapy, and nursing – will now be able to use the learning center, which includes everything from virtual cadavers to interactive holographic images.
Specifically, the lab includes a desktop virtual reality solution from zSpace that allows students to choose from more than 13,000 3-D hologram models, remove them from the screen virtually, rotate them, take them apart, and see them in action from the inside out. And unlike with cadavers, students can also practice surgical procedures an unlimited number of times.
Hasel said when organs are projected in 3-D virtual reality, systems and tissues appear the same in structure and color as they do in real life. 
Meanwhile, a virtual dissection table includes immersive educational content for teaching anatomy and allows students to look inside the body with 360-degree access, while a VR headset station allows students to take a “walking tour” of the human body. 
Measuring medical students’ proficiency is also a growing area of focus. In response, WesternU has adopted an adaptive learning platform that uses powerful algorithms to guide students’ learning and to measure their proficiency. 
“With a high level of accuracy we can measure every single learner’s knowledge proficiency 24/7,” said Hasel. “We know their strengths and weaknesses right down to how much time they spend answering an assessment question and we are alerted to any gaps in their learning.”
Hasel said students that are using the virtual reality tools are already scoring an average of 20 percent higher than the previous year’s students.  
At Mount Sinai Beth Israel, Buchbinder’s students are also heavily engaged with virtual reality technology for their medical training. 
“With the advances in technology over the years, we knew we needed something realistic, high fidelity and cost effective, and virtual reality has all that,” Buchbinder said. “We’re also now teaching a generation of students who are very used to taking a technology-based approach to almost everything they do, as well accustomed to 3-D gaming.”
Buchbinder said Mount Sinai Beth Israel is already using virtual reality to teach anatomy, while also working to build an entire curriculum based on digital simulation. 
“This is the wave of the future,” Buchbinder said. “The quality of the graphics, the ability to interact with these 3-D models, the ability to dissect things and to tune the feedback to make it as realistic as possible can give students a totally new type of medical education experience. I think this is only the beginning of what will definitely be an anchor in medical education in the future.”
Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at