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Medical Education
Technology Enhanced Education

Virtual Reality as a Learning Tool in Anatomy Education

By Megan O’Connor, Instructional Designer in the UCSF School of Medicine

At its best, educational technology solves a learning challenge. At its worst, it’s an expensive trend with little educational value. As instructional designers in the School of Medicine at UCSF, the question “What learning challenge does virtual reality address?” is of significant interest to us as we explore the role of virtual reality (VR) in our curriculum. Fortunately, over the last few months, we’ve discovered promising ways VR addresses unique learning challenges in the anatomy classroom.

Virtual reality allows you to explore spatial relationships in a way that is practically impossible with cadavers alone. In VR, you can view detailed human figures that are standing or even moving like a patient might be. You can hide or reveal individual organ systems for a better perspective of deeper layers, easily pull apart anatomical components to understand how they are positioned within the body, and quickly reset components to their correct location. You can hide everything but the skeleton and walk 360° around the figure to get a view of the front and back of the spinal column. You can lean in for a close-up view of a hip joint, or show the nervous system to reveal the way nerves innervate a knee. You can even see context-sensitive labels and descriptions for any structure you select.

It’s true that the figures in VR don’t look exactly like cadavers. Instead, they resemble medical illustrations of ideal figures, but body components are accurate enough in rendering and location to be helpful to medical students. VR offers a 3D life-like perspective that simply is not possible on a flat 2D screen and VR dissections are infinitely repeatable.  

VR does not and should not replace time spent working with cadavers under the guidance of teachers, but it appears to be an excellent supplement to anatomy education especially when the experience of VR is paired with team discussion and guided lesson plans provided by anatomy faculty.

To learn more about virtual reality in the UCSF Anatomy component of the curriculum, read How VR is Revolutionizing the Way Future Doctors are Learning About Our Bodies