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Shortage of donated bodies forces Nebraska anatomy programs to seek alternatives
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Shortage of donated bodies forces Nebraska anatomy programs to seek alternatives

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A growing need for doctors, nurses and specialists trained and prepared to care for an aging population in Nebraska has helped spur tens of millions of dollars of investment into science education facilities over the last decade.

Despite the new wave of modern classroom spaces and high-tech learning labs, undergraduate anatomy programs across Nebraska are finding it difficult to obtain an increasingly important teaching tool.

Human bodies.

On average, 250 people bequeath their bodies to the Nebraska State Anatomical Board annually to provide hands-on learning for aspiring health care professionals.

Under the anatomical board’s policy, nine out of every 10 bodies donated goes to either the University of Nebraska Medical Center or Creighton University, the state’s two medical universities.

The remaining 10% are provided to undergraduate nursing, physical therapy or physician’s assistant programs, as well as other professional schools who apply to the anatomical board.

While the number of Nebraskans choosing to have their bodies become teaching cadavers increased gradually over the last two decades, said Benjamin Hall, manager of the Deeded Body Program at UNMC, donations can be cyclical.

Two years ago, the anatomical board saw donations level off somewhat, just as undergraduate and graduate programs were opening or set to open new or renovated anatomy labs across the state.

“All the programs have become bigger, and more programs have been added where they have a need for the donors,” Hall said. “Demand is exceeding supply.”

The shortage has forced undergraduate anatomy labs to look beyond the state’s borders for available cadavers, often at higher costs passed on to students through lab use fees, or to rethink how to teach human anatomy.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln completed an $8.1 million renovation that reconfigured two separate anatomy labs into a single large space with six cadaver tanks, high-definition cameras projecting images onto flat-screen televisions and a new air-filtration system in 2015.

The renovated lab was designed to create an immersive experience for students interested in everything from dentistry to athletic training, said David Woodman, a professor of practice in biological systems, and has become a model for other Big Ten Conference schools.

When the number of teaching cadavers available to undergraduate programs began to dwindle, UNL faculty asked colleagues in other states before securing a new source of donors at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Woodman said.

“It limits us when we don’t have access,” he said, “but we were able to find a new source.”

The Bryan College of Health Sciences, which recently expanded the number of cadavers it has available for student use amid growing enrollment, also located donors in Kansas, according to a spokesman.

Other universities in Nebraska have had to go even further.

Concordia University was able to secure its lone cadaver — it has room for four in its new cadaver lab in the lower level of the Dunklau Center — from Arizona. Doane University will also receive a cadaver from the Grand Canyon State and is on the waiting list in several other states.

As it waits, Doane has scaled back its dissection courses in order to stretch the use of its current cadaver, said Melissa Clouse, an assistant professor of practice and director of the university’s pre-health programs.

Nebraska’s anatomy programs have been fortunate to expose students to real-life human anatomy, Clouse said, but faculty need to be flexible and willing to retool their curriculum if shortages occur to meet their objective: giving students a working understanding of the parts of the body.

“Students are not at a disadvantage,” she said. “It is a valuable experience to have cadavers at the undergrad level, but it’s always been a value add.”

Some programs across the country have turned to synthetic cadavers — models complete with lifelike but fake muscles, organs and skeletal systems — while others, including the University of Nebraska at Kearney, have installed virtual cadavers called Anatomage tables, where students can peel away body parts with the swipe of a finger.

Both alternatives can be cost-prohibitive, particularly to smaller private schools, Clouse added.

While technology may be a lure for other academic programs, Cindy Marolf, a biology professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University, said more students are looking for the kind of experience they receive in a cadaver lab.

After shifting from comparative biology — which tasked students with dissecting fish, birds and other animals — to human biology, Nebraska Wesleyan also required students in popular programs such as physical therapy and exercise science to take anatomy and physiology.

That puts 140 students in the cadaver lab each semester, Marolf said, which, with no new cadavers available, has necessitated some changes in how she teaches the course.

“We didn’t use it (a cadaver) nearly as much this year as we would have otherwise,” she said.

Margaret Jergenson, the chair of oral biology at Creighton Dental School and the president of the state’s anatomical board, said until more donors are available, the shortage will likely persist for undergraduate programs.

Dentistry, physical therapy, medicine, physician’s assistant and occupational therapy are the largest users at both UNMC and Creighton, she said, and the board likes to provide one donor for every six students.

Recent growth — Creighton's dental school expanded from 85 to 115 students, while physical therapy enrollment jumped from 60 to 80 students — means more cadavers are being tagged for their use.

“If several programs need a couple more donors, it all of a sudden becomes a larger number than it would seem,” she said. “That just happened at approximately the same time.”

Jergenson said the anatomical board’s focus will remain on meeting the needs of graduate-level programs first and undergraduate programs second if the number of donations allows, which follows how graduate programs approach student instruction.

“We teach our courses presuming students have not had that experience,” she said. “Those who have had that experience may have a higher comfort level, but our course is usually a little more rigorous than what they’ve taken before.”

Anatomy instructors such as Vicki Hurd, UNL’s anatomy lab supervisor, say students have credited their experience in the cadaver lab as being instrumental to their success in their professional programs.

“When you’re in the health field or working toward getting a degree in a health field, the best resource and learning tool is an actual human body,” Hurd said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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