New Anatomy Learning Center Prepares Next Generation of Clinicians

UCSF's 'Lab of the Future' Uses Latest Technology to Explore Human Body, Disease, and Treatment

By Kevin Eisenmann

The days of carrying hefty, 1,500-page Gray’s Anatomy textbooks may be long gone, but not much more has changed over the decades in how medical students learn anatomy — until now.

Students at UCSF have just begun studies in a new, state-of-the-art anatomy learning center equipped with interactive iPad textbooks, giant video displays and roving cameras that will allow them to observe, discover and come to understand, in a new way, the complex architecture of the human body.

Few other first-year medical students in the world will learn anatomy in such an interactive and clinically relevant way, said Kimberly Topp, PhD, PT, chair of the UCSF Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science and professor of anatomy.

“The exploration and understanding of human anatomy is one of the most basic elements to becoming a great doctor,” said Sam Hawgood, MBBS, dean of the UCSF School of Medicine and vice chancellor for medical affairs. “The UCSF Anatomy Learning Center will help the next generation of clinicians visualize the body with sophistication and detail.”

With the goal of creating a learning environment where trainees thrive, UCSF is among the nation's premier academic health centers at the forefront of educating health professionals in dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy and the Graduate Division. It consistently ranks among the best universities nationwide and attracts the world's finest students.

The 6,000-square-foot space at the UCSF Parnassus campus will enable some 150 medical, physical therapy and pharmacy students, working with up to 30 cadavers, the opportunity to learn anatomy through dissection, aided by expert faculty and practicing physicians demonstrating clinical procedures.

Students will move from dissecting embalmed cadavers, to practicing medical and surgical procedures in fresh tissue, to interpreting ultrasound imaging and physical examination findings on standardized patient “actors” and each other. Tablet devices loaded with interactive textbooks, detailed graphics, quizzes and videos will facilitate such advanced teaching.

With the aid of six 72-inch, high-definition video monitors lining the walls and wirelessly connected to mobile cameras and the iPads, students will be able to interact with the learning material and observe fellow classmates’ discoveries without leaving their workstation. Teleconferencing in the Anatomy Learning Center will allow them to connect to a number of remote sites such as operating rooms, clinics, classrooms and the UCSF Kanbar Simulation Center to watch procedures and learn technique.

Medical students learning about the human brain in the dissection lab will be able to watch live surgeries with world-renowned neurosurgeons such as Mitchel Berger, MD, chair of the UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery. These same students will then be able to work inter-professionally, side by side with nurses and anesthesiologists to prepare their cadaver “patient” for the same surgical approach. Physical therapy students will learn arm anatomy in the dissection lab, and then move to the fresh tissue procedures lab to observe how nerves glide and stretch in response to limb movement.

Creating a Dynamic Learning Experience

“The UCSF Anatomy Learning Center brings together the best teaching methods and technologies under one roof,” said Jeffrey Laitman, PhD, president of the American Association of Anatomists. “While the structure of the human body hasn’t changed much over time, technology has, and UCSF is using these new tools to teach students in what I consider is the anatomy lab of the future.”

To accommodate the streaming of high-definition content, the new center is equipped with more than 25 wireless routers, the first network of its kind at the University.

The teaching elements offered in the new center aren’t all unique to UCSF. Many medical schools around the country have cameras, tablet devices and video displays. But UCSF may be the only one that blends all of these elements to create a dynamic, comprehensive teaching space, said Topp.

“The Anatomy Learning Center will allow students to become experts before they ever reach the clinic,” she said. “Students will be able to learn the anatomy relevant to procedures in several different simulated environments. At the end of the day, it’s really about delivering safe, high-quality care to the patient.”

The new center also will allow students to conduct dissections and common medical procedures on fresh tissue — including limbs and organs — giving them the chance to practice what they’ve learned on more realistic material. The insertion of airway tubes or intravenous lines, for example, requires that students be expert before they reach the higher-stakes environment of patient clinics.

The center is also equipped with ultrasound imaging machines and laparoscopic surgery towers enabling students to understand the relevance of anatomy while learning advanced clinical skills from practicing physicians.

The value is not lost on other medical students. “When I took anatomy just a few years ago, there were overhead vents blocking our view, fixed tables, and almost zero technology,” said Dominique Marie Suarez, a fourth-year UCSF medical student. “This lab is one that I want to spend more time in. I wish I could take anatomy all over again.”

“This lab is about imbuing a sense of wonder, respect and enlightenment in the minds of medical students,” said Hawgood, dean of one of the top-ranked medical schools in the United States. “By opening this one-of-a-kind learning lab, UCSF demonstrates its continued commitment to producing the next generation of health care leaders.”

Building the Lab With High-Tech Tools

Planning for the $7.5 million anatomy lab, supported by public and private funds, began in 2010 after the former space, a 60-year-old lab that had received only minor updates, was closed due to an outdated air supply system.

UCSF brought together students, educators, clinicians, designers and technologists to create a teaching space that would be inviting and adaptable, while also functional for cadaveric material and safe for faculty students. To accommodate such a challenging set of requests, many features had to be built custom for the space, including the air supply system, the cadaver tables and the technology network.

UCSF also incorporated a less practical, but spiritually important element to the design: a special memorial wall was installed where students can honor those who have donated their bodies to research through letters, poems, artwork and other remembrances. 

The Anatomy Learning Center is targeted for silver LEED green-building rating and, as such, will be one of the few LEED-certified anatomy labs in the world. It was designed by the architectural firm Harley Ellis Devereaux, the firm that also designed UCSF’s Teaching and Learning Center, which opened in 2011.

Photos by Susan Merrell