DMU faculty rise to the challenge of teaching anatomy amid a pandemic

Anatomy is one of the most, if not the most, hands-on aspects of clinical students’ education. Students in DMU’s doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.), doctor of podiatric medicine (D.P.M.), doctor of physical therapy (D.P.T.), master of physician assistant studies (PA) and master of science in anatomy (M.S.A.) programs learn about the human body in part through dissecting and studying cadavers in the University’s anatomy labs. When the pandemic changed life as we knew it in March, however, DMU had to find different ways of delivering this knowledge.

“We took the bull by the horns and looked at options that were available,” says Donald Matz, Ph.D., chair of the anatomy department. “Dr. Lauren Butaric, course director for the Physician Assistant Clinically-Oriented Anatomy course, deserves the credit for her research to look for an online anatomy dissector that would meet our needs for not only the PA program but for the D.P.T., D.O., D.P.M. and M.S.A. programs. Dr. Heather Garvin-Elling and myself then utilized this platform to support our two fall anatomy courses.”

Dr. Donald Matz and his colleagues strategized on ways to teach anatomy hands-on during the pandemic.

When COVID-19 forced more virtual learning beginning in March, all of the small-group, case-based Science Knowledge Integrated into Patient Presentation assignments, or SKIPPS, that students need to complete for the gross anatomy course moved to Zoom breakout rooms. The anatomy faculty worked with staff of the University’s information technology services (ITS) department to identify a web-based platform, the Visible Body®, that allows instructors to conduct virtual anatomy labs, assign interactive homework and quiz students.

Over the summer, the anatomy teaching assistants wrote instructions for open in-person anatomy labs and guided students through the cases with faculty supervision.

“My faculty would tell you they really miss interacting with students in person,” says Dr. Matz. “Learning is fun in the anatomy lab, and we try to convey that.”

Students, too, miss face-to-face instruction, he says, but they understand the “new normal” imposed by the pandemic. For some portions of the anatomy courses, Dr. Matz provides live instruction from the anatomy lab that’s broadcast via the Zoom online platform to their computers, where students can safely physically distance. Assisting him are students in the anatomy master’s program, who perform the dissection and serve as teaching assistants; another M.S.A. student who monitors the Zoom chat line and verbal questions from students; and yet another student who runs the camera.

“It’s quite the production,” Dr. Matz says.

Before the fall semester began, Dr. Matz met with his faculty and the deans of DMU’s colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, Podiatric Medicine and Surgery, and Health Sciences to explain his department’s pandemic approach for teaching anatomy.

“We’ve had a lot of support from the deans, and my faculty are wonderful,” he says. “They are troopers who will help me on a dime. I know I work them hard.”

This fall, the number of students in the first-year anatomy labs per session went from 150 to 24 so that only two or three first-year M.S.A. students are at each dissection table. While DMU for years has required students in the lab to wear personal protective equipment – goggles, lab coats and gloves – face coverings are also now required. The labs are cleaned and sanitized between sessions. 

“In all of our courses during the pandemic, we have planned supervised open anatomy laboratory times for those students online to come in and view the donor dissections with safety precautions,” Dr. Matz says. “Students have been very excited to come into the lab, and without the support of our staff and the M.S.A. program available for questions and answers, this would not have been possible. I cannot say how impressed I am with all of our upperclassmen for their support of working the open anatomy labs during this time.”

Challenges continue, of course. Dr. Matz has learned to “throw a lot of questions at students to keep them engaged” when they’re participating in class via Zoom. The technology can get bogged down when 160 students are online in an anatomy session. It’s more difficult for faculty and students to get to know each other. But there have been a few silver linings as well, such as faculty incorporating more diagnostic visuals like MRI and CT scans in their courses, honing students’ clinical skills. There are unknowns, too, such as whether students’ test scores – one measure of their mastery – will compare well to those in past years. Pending that comparison, Dr. Matz says faculty will “take what we learned and try to adapt.”

“We have a lot of contingency plans if there is a coronavirus breakout,” he adds. “We have to keep our students and faculty safe.”

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