More Americans are Donating their Bodies to Medical Schools

August 18, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Students learn in a cadaver lab
Photo credit: Students studying a synthetic cadaver in the lab. Monirb/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Some schools report a spike in cadavers, while others struggle to meet demand.

With the cost of funerals at an all-time high, and a growing acceptance of the practice of body donation, it’s no wonder that some medical schools in the US have been receiving record numbers of cadavers.

The Associated Press reports that the University of Buffalo received almost 600 cadavers last year — double the number it’s gotten over the past decade, while the University of Minnesota has nearly tripled its body donation count over the past decade, receiving more than 550 cadavers last year. Duke University and the University of Arizona also report increases.

"Not too long ago, it was taboo,” Mark Zavoyna, operations manager for Georgetown University's body donation program, told the AP. “Now we have thousands of registered donors."

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Body donors that end up at medical schools play a crucial role in the training of aspiring doctors. “What we’re really trying to do is teach them what’s under the skin,” Neal Rubinstein, associate professor at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told National Geographic last month.

“Most physicians don’t cut into a body when they’re practicing medicine, but they have to know what’s underneath if they stick a needle here or there. Almost every physician needs to have a good three-dimensional picture of the body in their head.”

Although some medical schools are enjoying an abundance of cadavers, others constantly struggle with a short supply. The AP reports that one state agency in Illinois receives only 500 donated bodies each year, to be distributed across eight medical schools. And with first-year medical school enrollment on the rise, more cadavers are needed to provide students with sufficient hands-on learning opportunities.

Some alternatives, such as synthetic cadavers or virtual anatomy courses, can be used in lieu of donated bodies. But as Dr. Michael Zenn, a surgery professor at Duke University, tells the AP, “there's no substitute for the real thing, because ultimately these people are going to be taking care of patients.”

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