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How Virtual Anatomy Will Change Med School

Apr 21, 2017

Last week I spent a day at the venerable Cleveland Clinic—the city’s best-known celebrity, perhaps, next to this guy. The hospital (and really, it’s a hospital system with outposts in several cities in the U.S. and abroad) has always been on the spear point of progress—but that has been particularly true over the past 13 years, under the guidance of CEO Toby Cosgrove.

As I wrote in my editor’s letter for Fortune’s souped-up Future Issue (on newsstands very soon), I visited Ohio’s second-largest city to check out a cool piece of technology that the Clinic—and its Cleveland cousin, Case Western Reserve University—are using to teach meds students anatomy: and teach it in a whole new, dynamic, and interactive way.

Case Western’s Dr. Mark Griswold, a professor of radiology who is an expert in magnetic resonance imaging, has worked with colleagues to build a “virtual anatomy” tool on the Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality platform. Put on the HoloLens visor, plug in the human circulation program (one of various anatomy modules that Griswold’s team has built), and you’ll find yourself staring at a life-size, 3D human figure, with every vein and artery in perfect bodily placement and scale.

You can walk around this anatomically correct scaffold, spying organs and tissues from any angle, and poke your head in to see the interior of, say, a heart. Within, you’ll see that organ’s distinct chambers—and within those, the discrete valves.

What is most striking is that this body seems to take up real physical space. (Dr. Griswold points out that nearly everyone who has sampled the program walks around the Da Vincian figure’s outstretched skeletal hands so as not to “bump into” them.) Everyone who dons the goggles sees the same images, making medical instruction easier—and the fact that you experience the real world along with the virtual one makes conversation and consultation easier, too. (Seeing this demo with Dr. Cosgrove, a former heart surgeon who pioneered techniques for valve repair that are widely used to this day, was an extra treat.)

In AR anatomy, the real merges fluidly with the imagined; the laws of the physical world bend just enough to allow for a four-dimensional understanding (3D plus a magnified view of the interior), but not so much that it makes you queasy.

The idea is to teach students anatomy in a way that they absorb the knowledge more readily, more intuitively—and more quickly. Seeing and “touching” intertwined veins and arteries as they navigate through the human form gives you an understanding of circulation that is difficult (or maybe impossible) to get by studying even the most finely etched schematic in a textbook.

And the better and faster they learn the human roadmap, the sooner these budding surgeons can start driving on their own—which is to say, repairing living bodies.

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