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Letting the public participate in anatomy lab

August 5, 2010

The Wall Street Journal HealthBlog carries an interesting piece about a program at Indiana University–Northwest that allows volunteers from the general public to participate in preparing cadavers for first year medical students.

This is a brilliant idea for several reasons:

  1. One persistent problem facing physicians is the extremely low health literacy of most patients.  Simply put, “health literacy” refers to how well patients can comprehend what their doctors are telling them, evaluate that information and make an informed decision.  Health literacy is becoming increasingly important as patients are challenged more and more to be savvy consumers of health services.  Understanding the different options presented by a physician and making a choice that fits a patient’s health goals, personal beliefs and financial means rests solely on that patient’s health literacy.  By participating in activities that teach individuals from the general public about basic anatomy you increase their health literacy (and likely that of their friends and family).
  2. This program demystifies a part of medical training.  If we want patients to participate in medical decisions and become partners with us in their health care, then they need to have a better understanding of how we are trained.  Understanding medical education can give a patient insights into a physicians perspective and how they approach medical problems.  Allowing members of the public to participate in anatomy lab–a fundamental experience for all medical students–helps them see through a physician’s eyes.  Walking into an anatomy lab and working with a cadaver is something that must be experienced, it can’t effectively be described.
  3. As the article describes, this could become a useful tool for recruiting more people to become anatomists.  Budget cuts may be the final word on anatomy labs with cadavers, but it seems the dwindling number of anatomy professors may beat shrinking budgets to the punch.  The simple fact is we need more trained anatomists to teach medical students and other health professionals.
  4. Preparing cadavers for the medical students is a valuable service.  It allows the students to focus on the underlying anatomy and potential pathologies.
  5. Anatomy is cool and should be shared with as many people as possible.

Granted, having 47 people spend a couple of days in the anatomy lab will only have a marginal impact on health literacy and provides only a small glimpse into the long process of becoming a doctor.  But, if every medical school setup similar programs and actively enrolled interested members from the community (not other health professional students), such a program could have a dramatic impact.

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