• by Emil Salazar
  • May 11 2017

Virtual Anatomy Develops into a Major Tool in Medical Education

Virtual Anatomy Develops into a Major Tool in Medical Education

Applications for Augmented and Virtual Reality in Healthcare Begin in the First Year of Medical School

In recently published market research reportVirtual Reality and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) in Healthcare, Kalorama Information examines application markets for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in U.S. healthcare, including in medical education, healthcare training, rehabilitation, therapy, and surgery.

In healthcare, virtual reality touches even the medical school with its reenvisioning of a centuries-old practice. Cadavers are an invaluable resource for medical education in the United States, but require selfless donation on the part of thousands, billions of dollars in associated anatomy lab costs, and careful collaboration on the part of medical students and residents.  Administrators are caught between ensuring students’ and residents’ optimal exposure to cadaveric dissection and controlling costs and access. An emerging solution has been virtual anatomy with the use of highly complex, interactive representations of the human body and its systems. In the coming years, medical schools and teaching hospitals will have to determine the proper role for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) alongside cadaveric dissection.

Several companies serve the emerging market for virtual anatomy in medical education, with Anatomage and zSpace being the two most significant vendors to date. Anatomage markets the Anatomage Table for fully segmented, accurate 3D anatomy in the classroom. The life-sized touch screen is oriented as a flat surface allowing for collaboration and teaching in a group and also projection onto classroom monitors or walls.

Augmented reality platforms may prove highly competitive in the virtual anatomy space. The zSpace system costs only $4,000 compared to the $70,000 price tag of Anatomage tables. zSpace users view a computer display with specialty glasses that create an immersive, interactive 3D projection. The system includes a stylus for interaction with the visualization.

Potentially disruptive for the space could be the release of the HoloAnatomy application for the Microsoft HoloLens AR headset. Developed for a headset currently priced at $5,000, HoloAnatomy from Case Western Reserve University generates holographic human anatomical models in real life through the HoloLens visor. Students at Case Western and potential licensees will be able to segment or separate different body systems; isolate individual organs and other points of interest; view organ and system function through holographic motion; and evaluate holographic anatomy in conjunction with other images of pieces of information (headset holograms can be manipulated and moved through commands).

Even the most advanced anatomical simulation cannot fully replace cadavers in medical education. The enthusiasm of cost cutting using virtual anatomy has its limits as administrators remain mindful of the natural variation in patient anatomy and the physiological nature of disease best captured in cadaveric dissection. With the rising availability of virtual anatomy solutions, administrators also stress the unique learning opportunities of cadaveric dissection including working in a group as a prelude to the operating room. Although rapidly becoming more sophisticated, virtual anatomy products are likely to remain limited to general anatomy in the first few years of medical school before more specialized learning and surgical education require cadaveric education.