Cadavers Are Teaching Doctors to Be More Empathetic

By getting to know the person behind the cadaver, new doctors are honing the skills they’ll use on living patients

Tony Kurdzuk/Star Ledger/Corbis

For students starting their first year of medical school, gross anatomy lab can be a rite of passage that lives up to its name. Often, it’s the first time students do the dirty work of taking a human body apart in order to learn how it works. It can be a harrowing experience, and many times students react to their discomfort by emotionally disengaging from the body beneath their scalpels.

But while joking about a corpse can help calm the nerves, it might be doing more harm than good. If one of the earliest lessons a future doctor learns is to keep a body at arm’s length, they might do their living patients a disservice by avoiding engaging with them, John Tyler Allen writes for The Atlantic.

“To walk into a room and start cutting up a human being’s body, it’s not normal,” Jerry Vannatta, the former executive dean of OU College of Medicine, tells Allen.

Vannatta got the idea for what he calls the “Donor Luncheon” in 2000 while teaching a workshop in Taiwan. When one of the attendees told him about his experience meeting with the family of the cadaver he dissected during gross anatomy lab, Vannatta was amazed — and eager to give his own students the same experience. Ever since, he has arranged for his students to meet with the families of donor cadavers in hopes of humanizing the bodies they will spend the semester taking apart.

It’s common for medical students to adopt all kinds of gallows humor in order to make themselves more comfortable with the weirdness of the situation. But according to a recent study published in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education, coping mechanisms like giving cadavers funny nicknames might set a precedent that influences future doctors to distance themselves from their living patients down the road.

Teaching doctors and officials at medical schools have been concerned with this element of the course since the 1950s, when a sociologist named Robert Merton found that hospitals were training doctors in a sterile and un-empathetic environment, Allen writes. Even as medicine becomes more personalized through digital technology, doctors still struggle to connect with their patients as more than just a set of numbers, statistics and diagnoses.

“The close doctor-patient relationship, necessary for proper diagnosis and treatment, has become a distant doctor-computer-patient relationship,” psychiatrist Carole Leiberman tells Judy Mandell for The Observer. “If a patient doesn’t feel a connection to his doctor that encourages him to confide, and the doctor doesn’t have time to ask enough questions about the patient’s lifestyle, symptoms, and so on, then the proper diagnosis can’t be made, and the proper treatment can’t be prescribed.”

However, recent studies of students who did engage with the families of donor cadavers found that many students actually want to know more about the people from whose bodies they learn the basics of human anatomy. It turns out that when it comes to the bodies doctors treat, a little empathy can go a long way for bodies treated by doctors — and doctors themselves.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.