Future doctors learn human anatomy using virtual reality simulations

For centuries, the practice of dissecting cadavers is how future doctors have learned about the anatomy of the human body. Medical students at the University of California San Francisco, however, are using virtual reality training as an optional component in their first-year curriculum, allowing them to explore the human body before ever setting foot in an actual lab.

Knowledge of anatomy is the foundation of all medical knowledge, and VR lets med students get a more complete understanding of the complex structures that make up our bodies.

Assistant Professor of Anatomy Derek Harmon, PhD, told Science Blog that he thinks it’s an important addition to the school’s curriculum. “Virtual reality is exciting for me as an anatomy instructor because it is going to help enhance the students’ understanding of the arrangement of the body,” he said. “Because the better they know the body, the better physicians they will end up being for the rest of their careers.”

Textbooks and actual dissections of cadavers are useful, but VR adds a whole new dimension to the instruction. Students can remove each layer individually, from the skin all the way down to bones. The VR interface allows them to better understand the interaction between muscles, organs, nerves, and blood vessels. “It’s a learning experience almost like putting a puzzle together,” Harmon said.

The VR simulation learning is part of UCSF’s Bridges Curriculum, a revolutionary new program at the School of Medicine that emphasizes new ways of looking at the interconnected nature of health care.

Surgeons have already broadcast actual operations in VR, and some can even prep for upcoming procedures by practicing every step in VR before they even enter operating room.

Kimberly Topp, a PhD and Professor of Physical Therapy and Anatomy at UCSF, says there are many more real-world medical experiences that VR can simulate, such as what a doctor might encounter in an emergency room. “It is hard to simulate a realistic trauma experience where nobody is going to get hurt,” she said. “This is a great way to get students more comfortable with the actual clinical environment that they are headed into.”

“People are really wowed when using virtual reality. That is how I think it is going to help students remember the anatomy that is so dense in their education,” she added.

On the other hand, for the rest of us who may not be up for the rigors of medical school, we can always buckle on an Oculus Rift headset and give Surgeon Simulator a try.

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