During a recent visit to the University of the Witwatersrand’s (WITS) School of Anatomical Sciences, delegates from UKZN’s Clinical Anatomy Discipline discussed how technological advancements could improve the overall quality of research, teaching and learning in the fields of anatomy and physiology.

The visiting delegation, supported by Professor William Daniels, Dean and Head of UKZN’s School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences, spent the day touring the host institution’s facilities, sharing ideas and discussing best practices along with potential research areas for cross-institutional collaboration.

Dr Okpara Azu, Senior Lecturer of Clinical Anatomy and prolific researcher of plastination in the Discipline, said the visit was to assess the teaching of anatomy and histology; how students were assessed and examined; and how high-end technology facilitated this process and all research endeavours.

Azu said the annual intake of students into the Discipline and the MBChB Programme at UKZN required radical steps to cope with the high quality throughput results expected. ‘The actual training of a doctor begins when they engage in real life situations.’ This meant that there was a continuous demand for teaching and learning resources such as cadavers, and a need to increase capacity for staff and teaching assistance. 

With scarcity of the necessary teaching resources, Azu said it was important to keep up with the quest to explore alternatives by moving towards the use of plastinated specimens.   

Plastination – the technique or process used in anatomy to preserve bodies or body parts so they stay lifelike and indefinitely antiseptic – allows for several applications of plastinated specimens to be imaged in three dimensional simulations that can also be very useful in other departments such surgery, radiology and pathology.   

Mrs Shoohana Singh, Senior Laboratory Technician for human physiology at UKZN, said technology was an inevitable part of teaching histology - the study of the microscopic anatomy of cells and tissues of plants, animals and humans. ‘Histology helps students understand how a cell functions, its location and how its structure is aligned to perform the function.’ 

Singh said WITS had moved away from desktop microscopes to digital teaching and learning. ‘Many national and international universities are moving towards virtual miscopy.’ 

Singh argued that some students would never use a microscope after the “lab time” at university. She said the curriculum was fast-paced with high demands of student throughput annually. These students struggled with the use of the microscope and more focus was spent on the technical aspect of the microscope rather than examining the tissue under the microscope. 

While some students experience difficulty using microscopes, others have eye problems and the microscope is not conducive. ‘Students don’t all move at the same pace.’

Singh said new technology such as virtual histology could help create a digital library of slides for teaching, learning and research. ‘I feel this is the way to go at undergraduate level. At postgraduate level, students would be using more high-end research equipment and these students are usually more experienced at that stage to handle the microscope.

‘With the use of the internet and virtual histology you could actually teach students in the comfort of their homes. Virtual histology is cost effective as continuously replacing slides and microscopes can be very expensive. It also allows for software upgrades, you can digitalise student evaluation and tutorials could be done online and live,’ said Singh.

The delegates agreed that there was a need for strong advocacy for medical teaching and learning. Possible collaboration would be on comparative studies between students from both institutions and their use of eLearning facilities. 

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