Med students get a feel of human body on iPad

SINGAPORE - Given the shrinking supply of cadavers here, the upcoming medical school at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) will provide 3-D models of the human body on iPads to allow students to learn about anatomy.

The plan is to set up a central database of 3-D models of real-life patients.

NTU's Institute for Media Innovation (IMI), which is teaming up with the medical school to produce software for the tablet, will be recruiting local patients for the project.

For a start, it will focus on reproducing 3-D models of the lower limbs, said IMI director Nadia Thalmann, who created a virtual heart model back in the 1980s that paved the way for simulation surgery today.

This will be done by getting 2-D magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans from the patients to provide details of muscles and other structures. The patients will then be scanned with motion-capture technology. All these will be put together to yield a virtual representation of the muscles, tendons, joints and cartilage.

"The internal anatomy is as different as people's faces," Prof Thalmann said. "With patient-specific data, medical students can learn how to treat cases differently, depending on the person's age, amount of fat and how his skeleton moves."

Set to open next year, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine will also use the iPad as an "essential teaching and learning tool", said its senior vice-dean Martyn Partridge, adding that the provision of the device is still being worked out by the school.

"Putting such technology onto an iPad enables the student to visualise, learn and revise wherever they are."

Applications for the first batch of 50 students will open at the end of the year.

While the key aim is to leverage on technology to enhance learning, the move also helps the school overcome problems such as the diminishing supply of cadavers.

Last year, the Health Ministry received only 24 donated bodies, down from a five-year peak of 38 in 2008. In 2010, there were only 20 bodies.

One theory is that the number of unclaimed bodies - which form the bulk of the cadaver supply here - has dropped. Cadavers are used for three to four years.

At the National University of Singapore's (NUS) medical school, students have stopped dissecting cadavers since 2003, partly to prevent damaging them. Today, they observe and touch the cadavers during classes.

NUS is also using simulation programs.

Prof Partridge said the 3-D database will let students explore anatomy repeatedly and "without any cost or damage to actual specimens".

Students can also study the impact of movement on the human body - something that cadavers cannot offer.

"We used to study using 2-D line drawings and X-rays, so anything in 3-D is better," said Prof Partridge. And with people living longer, such new methods are needed to better understand the wear and tear of the body, he added.

Prof Thalmann said medical simulation is set to play a bigger role in the future. "The younger generation is a computer generation - the door is now wide open for change."

The Singapore General Hospital's associate dean, Associate Professor Tay Sook Muay, said the harnessing of technology is to be encouraged, as it forms part of an arsenal of tools for teaching and learning.

But cadaver training still has its value, said Prof Tay.

"It is the first experience of the human body, although it's a dead one," she said. "It invokes in the person a sense of respect for the human body."

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