Anatomy of a Health-Care Teaching Tool

Universities design 3-D database of human body for study

SATURDAY, Dec. 1, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Health-care students who must learn how blood travels through the heart, or how knees are wrenched by sprains, will soon need only to flip on their computer to see a "virtual human" spring to life.

Thanks to a project called the "Visible Human," conceived of a decade ago at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, work is nearing completion on a three-dimensional, digital, anatomical database of the human body that could revolutionize the way students learn.

While medical students dissect cadavers to learn the lessons of anatomy, nursing students and others studying to be health-care professionals rely primarily on anatomy texts and plastic models to learn the parts of the body. But the "Visible Human" computer program will allow all students to see, in color, the body moving and functioning as it does in real life. By pointing and clicking with a mouse, students will also be able to zero in on the tiniest details of every body part.

"This is a totally different way of learning," says Deborah Walker, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Michigan, which is one of several universities involved in the project but is the only one making it available to a nursing department.

"Instead of just looking at a model or a skeleton, students can slice through a pelvis and see the bone marrow and blood supply," she says. "It brings home the fact that the body is a living organ and makes it seem more real.

"The fact that it's in color makes a big difference, too," Walker adds. "It looks like a normal human body."

Carlos Suarez-Quian, who teaches anatomy at Georgetown University's School of Medicine, says the "Visible Human" program will be a great tool in addition to cadaveral dissection.

"The medical profession is going through an imaging revolution with CAT scans and MRIs, and students have to think in terms of cross-sectional anatomy. This provides that."

The University of Colorado at Denver is the primary center for the "Visible Human" project, in conjunction with Stanford University and the University of Michigan. The project is funded by a $6.7 million contract with the National Institutes of Health/National Library of Medicine.

The collection of data for the project began about a decade ago. CAT scans and MRIs were performed on cadavers to provide digital images of the human body. Researchers also sectioned cadavers at millimeter levels to provide the most detailed information possible, and the results were incorporated into three-dimensional renderings of a male and female body.

In addition to giving students the chance to look inside the human body and locate various bones, organs and muscles, the program will enable the students to see how the body parts interact with each other.

And students won't be the only ones to benefit from the project, Walker says.

"Take practicing clinicians presented with something they haven't seen in a while, like a strained muscle," she says. "Instead of going to an anatomy textbook, they will be going to the 'Visible Human' to see an animation of the muscle working."

Suarez says having access to the "Visible Human" will be a great help to him for lectures. He now relies on one-dimensional pictures and needs as many as five or six illustrations to show students different body parts and from different angles. The three-dimensional pictures will allow him to "show the body from front and back and inside looking out."

"This is probably where I see this being the most useful to me," he says. "I use PowerPoint presentation, and I will be able to take all the animation and put it in my lecture notes."

Then, he adds, he'll simply give his students the appropriate Web site from which they'll be able to access the lecture on their laptops.

What to Do: To see a sample of the "Visible Human" project, you can visit the National Library of Medicine. To compare the animated project with traditional anatomy illustrations, go to this Gray's Anatomy Web site.

SOURCES: Interviews with Deborah S. Walker, R.N., C.N.M., D.N.Sc., assistant professor, School of Nursing, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Carlos Suarez-Quian, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Cell Biology, Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C.
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