What if the way we teach human anatomy is partly responsible for how our students respond to their patients? If I think back to my own experiences of learning Human Anatomy and ask myself how much of the classroom time was dedicated to the human aspect, I’d have to say, none. I can’t remember ever being encouraged to consider the life in front of me as we uncovered the cadaver or specimen for the first time. Sure, we had the necessary statements about respecting the body (no argument here about that, that’s an important aspect too) but at no point were we asked to reflect on the person in front of us.
In fact, our teachers did everything possible to remove the humanity from the experience. We never referred to the cadavers as persons, only as objects upon which we could practice. When I think back on that experience, I can’t remember a single instance when we were asked to to look at the person lying on the table in front of us, and to wonder what their life was like. To imagine if they had children. To ask if they were fundamentally happy people, or did they suffer greatly? Of course it isn’t appropriate for us to have real responses to these questions as the anonymity of the person who donated their body is important. But I wonder if it would have put us first year students into an appropriately reflective mood where we might have thought differently about what we were doing.
Now, skip forward a few years to clinical practice when students are beginning to spend significant periods of time with patients. How long does it take them to move beyond the knee as a focus of attention? If your experiences are anything like mine, it takes too long. For some people it takes years after graduation to get beyond the fact that their patients are anything more than a collection of muscles, joints and nerves. As I was thinking about this the other day (we’re currently busy with our clinical exams) I wondered how much of that is a legacy of the fact that, from the beginning of their interaction with human bodies, we objectify those bodies and do everything we can to obfuscate their humanity.
I started to think about how we could teach anatomy differently and whether or not that might have an impact on how students think about human bodies. Off the top of my head, here are a few things that we could do differently when it comes to teaching anatomy:
I’m not saying that we should remove dissection from the curriculum but I do think that if all we’re going to do with cadavers is objectify them and remove their humanity, we might as well make use of technology to teach anatomy. The number of apps available for the study of anatomy is amazing and growing daily, both in number and quality. At some point very soon we’re going to have easy and cheap access to augmented reality systems that will pretty much do away with the need for human dissection completely (see below).
For me, the value of dissection could be that we can connect our students with the body of a person who used to be a living being and to have them reflect on that fact as they progress through the anatomy module. To think of anatomy as a subject that deals, not with muscles and bones, but with a life that is past. I’m not sure, but I suspect that this will have an influence on how they interact with their patients later on in their training, during their clinical rotations.