During TEDMED we had the opportunity to meet, talk with and interview many interesting people and learn about what advances they are bringing to healthcare’s future. Among the most interesting ones was our interview with TEDMED speakers Marc Triola, M.D. and John Qualter creators of the Biodigital Human, a very detailed and web-based 3D model of the human body with the hopes of contributing in the education of the new generation of medical students (watch their TEDMED talk).
MC: There are many other 3D models of the human body out there, some even as smartphone or tablet apps; how is yours different?
Marc: Ours is designed from the ground of education, it’s highly detailed and unlike other systems this is designed to show disease processes and living processes such as the beating heart and functional lungs, the progression of diseases like cancer and we also have a far greater number of tools in here to allow the students to practice the skills of dissecting and understand what they are seeing.
John: Not to mention it is web-based, so everyone who has access to an updated web browser would be able to use this technology. It is widely available, they don’t need to have smartphones.
MC: We all know that when medical students dissect cadavers, they never find every structure detailed in red, blue and yellow and in the living human body (i.e. operating room) they still won’t find this detail. So in the end, practicing on a cadaver –rather than a highly detailed 3D model– could help them understand the complexity of the actual living and non-color defined anatomy. Do you think this could actually impair their learning a little bit?
Marc: I think there are really 3 kinds of anatomy: there is cadaveric anatomy which is really brown and gray and it is quite difficult to see the structures even though it is an irreplaceable and amazing learning resource ; then there is the operating room anatomy which is also challenging because it is so vibrant and alive so it tends to be a lot of blood and it makes it difficult; so our goal here is to create something in the middle to help bridge the understanding of anatomy for these students so that they can make that transition, and also to create a tool that allows them to keep learning new procedures, new anatomy as they move forward, a new learning ecosystem.
MC: Are you hoping to replace the… [Marc actually cut me there and answered]… cadaver?
Marc: Never! Not at all! We think, as I said during the talk, that working with cadavers is a privilege, they are a gift from patients and it is an important experience, so we’re not out to replace cadavers at all. We’re out to enhance it, because it is such a precious resource but we have such a limited exposure to, so this can help you get more out of that experience and could help to keep learning more after you don’t have any more access to the cadaver.
MC: Would it be possible to add a ‘filter’ or something that allows this technology to show you how cadaveric or operating room anatomy looks like?
Marc: So that is definitely where we want to go and the technology needs to keep pace with us because that is actually quite an intricate physics model that we need to implement, but absolutely we want to get there and make this a true simulation as opposed to just nearly a 3D model of the human body.
MC: Do you think that this technology could reach other unprivileged places such as developing countries, where med schools can’t afford to prepare and maintain enough cadavers for their med students?
Marc: I think the short answer is yes. One of our goals of contributing to this learning ecosystem is lowering the barriers to everyone learning some of this stuff. So in one example it might be just making better use of the scarce resources of our cadavers, another example might be giving high school students or even younger students excited about learning anatomy and interested on this almost-gaming environment which is it fun for them. To a certain extent, as long as you put in an appropriate mentor into this system, we can deliver education where not only are there no cadavers but potentially the beginnings –not the entirety– but the beginnings of education where there are even no teachers.
[John later told me about how many high schools and med schools in Brazil are working with them to integrate this technology into their classrooms]
MC: Are there any future updates in mind for this particular technology? Where is all this headed?
Marc: We really want to expand the amount of anatomy. We have 5,000 structures but there are still many more. We want to really work on integrating one of the learning ecosystems where we can layer in dynamic information from a thousand sources including e-textbooks or local laboratory manuals. We want to create more models such as pediatric cases (right now we have adult male and adult female), obviously there is a lot of other human anatomy that should be there. Ultimately we would love to have a model that is easily modifiable and personalized to a new set of MRI data or CT data, so that one representation can be created for each individual patient.