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Medical Students at NYU School of Medicine Use Interactive Virtual 3D Cadaver

School Pioneers New Approach to Medical Education, Providing Access to Cutting-Edge, Web-Based Learning Environments

First-year students at NYU School of Medicine were introduced to a pioneering online 3D interactive virtual human body called the BioDigital Human™. This unique educational experience supplements the traditional use of human cadavers in anatomy instruction by allowing students to both view and interact with realistically simulated 3D organs and other anatomical structures. This technology is just one way NYU School of Medicine provides its students cutting-edge, web-based learning environments to break the lockstep of traditional medical education.

Anatomy students view the life-size digital content displayed on a projector screen in NYU School of Medicine’s anatomy lab using sophisticated consumer-grade 3D glasses. They also use laboratory iPads to magnify and explore the models in great detail. Similar to experiencing a 3D film, viewing the graphics stereoscopically provides the illusion of depth and greater appreciation for the 3D models and their relationship to each other. This immersive, virtual reality set-up is an unprecedented 3D anatomy installation at NYU School of Medicine and is now available to its students and faculty. The 3D models of human anatomy were developed by NYU School of Medicine’s Division of Educational Informatics and BioDigital Systems LLC, then packaged and deployed in the BioDigital Human platform.

“Students always remember their first cadaver because it brings to life the science they’ve so fervently studied. The BioDigital Human builds upon this experience by allowing the class to explore anatomical structures in more detail and further their connection with human anatomy,” said Steven B. Abramson, MD, senior vice president and vice dean for Education, Faculty and Academic Affairs at NYU School of Medicine. “With just a few clicks students can zoom in on an organ, spin it to view from any perspective, reveal and hide layers of muscle, bone, and nerves and use tools to dissect or analyze it as you would with a CT scan. Using this new technology, students and residents can now train in and out of the classroom to practice until they achieve mastery.”

Growing challenges to traditional medical education and dramatic changes in the healthcare delivery system are prompting curricular reform projects in medical education. NYU School of Medicine is engaged in an innovative new curriculum entitled C21, the Curriculum for the 21st Century. As part of this curriculum, the school is taking full advantage of computer-assisted instruction innovations and new capabilities of web-based digital applications to drive the evolution of medical education. Teaching will rely heavily on new web-based modules, computer-assisted instruction, and simulation, as well as increased collaborative teaching and learning among scientists, physicians, nurses, and other health professionals.

“We recognize that advances in educational informatics and simulation technologies provide opportunities for new teaching and learning strategies never before possible. For this reason we are implementing new learning tools to support our students so that they can learn any time, at any point and go back to review information as needed,” said Marc Triola, MD, associate dean for Educational Informatics and assistant professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine. “Additionally, digital environments -- used throughout the continuum of medical training -- could lead to reduced errors, lower healthcare costs, improved outcomes and most importantly, improved patient care.”

According to Dr. Triola, access to human anatomy models online provides faculty and learners an easily accessible visual interface for organizing and viewing a diverse range of educational content and allows users to focus and find information on a body region in a visual, intuitive manner. Typically, anatomy students must aggregate information from a vast array of static, 2D sources including atlases, textbooks, dissection manuals, and class lecture notes. These resources are inherently limited in their capability to foster a spatial understanding on par with the knowledge gained through working with real cadavers. Using highly accurate animated simulation, BioDigital Human allows students and faculty to practice dissections in a real-time, 3D environment. Users can mark incisions in virtual skin, reveal underlying tissue layers and then manipulate these layers from different perspectives. In addition to these capabilities, the simulator can be used from within any modern web browser and provides collaborative tools for sharing content among students and educators.

“We like to think of this tool as the next generation of Dr. Frank Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy, a true staple in anatomy medical education. Netter, also a NYU School of Medicine alumnus, created the more traditional 2D atlases of anatomy that students still use today,” said John Qualter, MSc, research assistant professor of Educational Informatics at NYU School of Medicine. “We consider our pioneering use of technology an extension of the work Netter began and further demonstrates the School of Medicine’s long history of and dedication to innovation in medical graphics.”

NYU School of Medicine's Division of Educational Informatics began building virtual anatomy for the Department of Surgery in 2002 for a series of multimedia modules now known as the Web Initiative for Surgical Education (WISE-MD). The set of surgical anatomical models created for those modules was constructed while referencing the National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Project as well as patient specific CT and MRI volumes. However, in an effort to create models that could be better manipulated for computer animation and brought into game-like environments, the school chose to re-model the surface of these 3D medical images under the guidance of the anatomy faculty. As a result, the virtual anatomy became better suited for teaching, allowing students to see smooth contours and colorful representations of structures similar to what they were already familiar with in their anatomy textbooks.

The next step was to put its virtual anatomy online in an interactive format that was accessible to its students. NYU School of Medicine achieved this goal in 2006, with the Virtual Pelvic Trainer, a self-guided, web-based, learning format for understanding pelvic floor anatomy. However, the application required a unique third-party browser plug-in, which the school viewed as a limitation for getting the software broadly adopted for educational use. Over the past year, in collaboration with BioDigital Systems, the Division of Educational Informatics has adopted the BioDigital Human™, a custom-built HTML5 and WebGL platform which allows the school to deliver content over the web without a reliance on third-party technology. Using this platform, NYU School of Medicine has provided the digital anatomy assets as a series of 3D anatomy modules, embedded as links in its learning management system and made available throughout its curriculum. 

Through this partnership BioDigital Systems, LLC has issued interest to NYU School of Medicine as part of this collaboration.

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