That rite of passage of medical education, the gross anatomy class, is facing a dearth of instructors. More than 80% of anatomy departments at U.S. medical schools anticipate "great" or "moderate" difficulty finding qualified gross anatomy teachers in the next 5 years, according to a national survey presented this month in Panama at the annual meeting of the Association of Anatomy, Cell Biology, and Neurobiology Chairpersons. To head off the problem, departments are training junior faculty members and pulling professors out of retirement.
A first-year class, gross anatomy includes an average of 170 hours of human dissection--roughly twice the amount of time devoted to many other courses. Normally, instructors are drawn from a pool of Ph.D.s who have graduated from anatomy departments. But those departments also emphasize work in cell biology or neurobiology; as anatomy has become increasingly molecular, focusing on cells rather than organs, gross anatomy has lost its appeal for many headed for a research career. "We maybe have one student every 2 years who wants to take gross anatomy," says Richard Drake, vice chair of the department of cell biology, neurobiology, and anatomy at the University of Cincinnati.
The survey, conducted by the American Association of Anatomists, confirmed what many schools are already beginning to experience: Finding qualified instructors willing to devote the necessary time to gross anatomy can be tough. At the University of Iowa, for example, graduate students are paid $1200 to act as teaching assistants for the class (they aren't paid for assisting with other classes in the department), and to qualify they must first enroll in it. In addition, a faculty member slated to retire in July will be returning after that to teach the course.
Most departments agree that those long hours of dissection are essential for medical students. Substitutes, such as virtual anatomical imaging, can never fully replace the real thing, says Robert McCuskey of the University of Arizona, Tucson: "I certainly wouldn't want a surgeon working on me who'd never actually touched a gallbladder."