By Philip Fine

For years, Dr. Ayman Behiery taught nursing students human anatomy, bringing them to the Strathcona building lab three times a year. There, they could better understand physiology with the help of those who had donated their bodies to science.  Upon his retirement in 2014, colleague Dr. Geoffroy Noël set into motion an innovative new teaching and learning laboratory class, one that’s also given students an effective way to review material where students teach other students anatomy.

The program takes that peer teaching even one step further, by mixing together three different Faculty disciplines.

Now in its fourth year, the curriculum involves a series of labs where a group of third-year students from the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy (SPOT) share their extensive knowledge of limbs, muscles and tendons with first-year medical students. Meanwhile, in another series of labs, second-year medical students review their new anatomy knowledge by sharing it with nursing students.

By mixing together students from different health fields, Noël’s goal is to cultivate good future relationships among fellow health care providers. He expresses confidence that the initiative can break down silos in the medical field. “It helps them to start to work as a team of professionals with different expertise,” says Noël, Associate Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology and Director, Division of Anatomical Sciences.

First-year medical student Chris Doyle-Kelly echoes that sentiment, acknowledging the SPOT students’ extensive anatomical knowledge. He’s also happy, as a future doctor, to give up the mantel of health care’s head honcho: “Early on in the process, it’s nice to shed those hierarchies.”

The program was also implemented to help students learn better. SPOT student Minh-Tam Tran, who had just come out of a two-hour lab teaching first-year med students with fellow student Harrison Watt, says once you’ve made the material understandable, you can then better understand it yourself. “It helps consolidate the information.”

Watt agrees. As he waits for that proverbial penny to drop for a student who is struggling to understand a concept, and so explains it in another way, Watt feels he himself is also absorbing the concept that much better. “When you see that blank face, it forces you to think about it differently. You’re forced to think about it in three to four different ways.”

Medical students complete their anatomy work in a large lab in teams of four, as the three SPOT students, as well as three medical residents, and faculty members walk around to check on the different groups. There are very strict rules in the lab about decorum – both in the approach to the work and general behaviour – to respect the donors.

First-year medical student Sarah Zhou takes to heart those rules. She thinks about the family and donors. “We’re taking their wish, to help us learn more about medicine, and bringing it to our clinical practice to help other people.”

The students talk about the advantages of working on human donors, which is less common than it used to be in medical schools. They say textbooks and models can never capture the human body in the same way. “You get to appreciate how certain structures function the way they do,” says Zhou, while Minh adds: “It helps us visualize under the skin. Our teacher says you develop an x-ray vision.”

The students also discuss the nuances that distinguish the three disciplines: the nursing students have more clinical experience, the med students possess a good basic-science mindset and the SPOT students have extensive biomechanical knowledge.  But it’s finding the common curiosity through their different ways of looking at anatomy and their ranges of experiences that appear to make these innovative lab times that much richer.


July 12, 2017