Stanford Medicine educators use VR to teach anatomy to med students in Kenya

[The project described in this story from the Stanford University School of Medicine represents a very positive application of presence-evoking technology that involves sharing knowledge and experience across the planet. –Matthew]

[Image: A virtual-reality-enabled anatomy class that Stanford Medicine educators taught to high school students over the summer. Credit: Matt Hasel]

Educators will use virtual reality to teach anatomy

This fall, Stanford Medicine educators will teach anatomy to medical students in Kenya using virtual reality. The effort is part of a pilot project to educate medical students in under-resourced schools.

October 16, 2020
By Mandy Erickson

Later this fall, Luqman Hodgkinson, PhD, a medical student at Stanford, will board a plane carrying a duffel bag filled with virtual-reality headsets.

His destination is Kenya’s Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology. He’ll show medical students there how to use the headsets. Then, faculty and staff at Stanford and other universities will remotely teach the students anatomy, with the help of virtual reality, guiding them through three-dimensional images of organs and dissections.

The project is a first step for Scalpel 2.0, a new virtual-teaching initiative led by Stanford Medicine.

“We can transform hands-on medical training by enabling experts at Stanford and other schools to stand side by side, virtually, with students anywhere in the world,” Hodgkinson said.

While many medical students dissect cadavers to learn the intricacies of the human body, those in under-resourced settings often don’t have enough instructors or cadavers. Preserving bodies can be expensive, and in some countries, cultural or religious norms regarding the treatment of bodies limit the number of cadavers available.

“Many medical schools around the world lack resources for teaching anatomy,” said Sakti Srivastava, MD, chief of clinical anatomy at Stanford. “Something like this VR program can make a huge difference.”

Increasingly digitized

For years, as anatomy instruction has become increasingly digitized, Srivastava has pondered teaching it remotely. Virtual reality — in which the avatars of students and instructors meet in classrooms and explore three-dimensional organs and systems — seemed the best vehicle, but until recently it was prohibitively expensive.

Now, a VR headset costs $400 — the price of a cell phone. “Pretty much everyone has a cell phone,” Srivastava said.

The anatomy division was in the middle of developing a virtual curriculum for overseas medical students when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered campus, along with most in-person instruction, in March.

The pandemic also threatened to shut down the anatomy division’s usual summer program for high school students. Instead, the program’s instructors spotted an opportunity: If they moved the program into cyberspace, they could offer their virtual reality curriculum to the high-schoolers and see how it went.

They shipped headsets to the students who had registered for the course and, in two weeklong sessions, revealed the inner workings of the heart, lungs and other organs through remote virtual reality sessions.

“We learned a ton about the technical issues, navigation and how to interact with virtual anatomical specimens,” Srivastava said. “Fortunately, the great majority of students liked it.”

‘We are a global community’

Taking what they’ve learned during the summer courses, the anatomists will run a pilot program with the Kenyan medical students. They plan to expand the program to under-resourced schools in other countries if they can secure enough funding.

“Scalpel 2.0 is a way for people who have skills to help medically underserved areas,” said Hodgkinson, who grew up in Kenya and is on the faculty at Masinde Muliro. He plans to return after he finishes his residency.

“We are a global community, and there are large areas in the world where people don’t have access to health care,” he said. “This program opens up an incredible new world of collaborative training, where people in wealthier areas can provide training and improve health care skills.”

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