- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Understanding the human body and why it eventually ceases to function requires the ability to open it up and view its parts at their most basic levels. Although not pleasant for the casual observer, for those studying to become doctors, the autopsy accomplishes this goal and gives researchers access to potentially lifesaving knowledge.

A Web site assembled by college students brings the anatomical study of death to a virtual environment through cases loaded with educational opportunities for the medical college undergraduate, pathologist and amateur biologist.

Virtual Autopsy

Site address: www.le.ac.uk/pathology/teach/va/titlpag1.html

Creator: The Virtual Autopsy site is owned by the University of Leicester in England as part of its medical school.

Creator quotable: “This site was created as an undergraduate teaching aid for pathologists at Leicester University’s medical school. Its fairly lighthearted approach to teaching the basics of autopsy diagnosis has proven both popular and effective. The material available from the site is referenced in medical teaching courses around the world,” says Jon Naylor, webmaster for the site.

Word from the Webwise: The site pulls no punches in its quiz dealing with the biological causes of death of 18 individuals and is not recommended for the squeamish. Through a frames-based Web design, visitors are privy to cases prepared by medical students Ruth Mackay, Ajay Mark Verma and Tim Taylor, who spent five years bringing this amazing challenge to fruition.

After clicking on a case, visitors will find an illustration of an interactive cadaver to the left of the page that, when areas are clicked upon, presents up to nine images of the body that can deliver critical clues to the cause of death. The images usually are color photographs of body organs and are combined with text-based information. The images can be enlarged for further investigation.

Visitors also will get a history of the patient, why he or she was admitted to a medical facility and any symptoms associated with the trauma. Once enough knowledge is gathered, the students can guess a cause of death and be rewarded with more detailed information for a correct response or given a browbeating and told to keep investigating for a wrong one.

For example, case No. 4 involves a 57-year-old man admitted to the hospital late in the day with severe breathlessness. He was given oxygen but collapsed suddenly, coughing up blood, and died the next morning. Junior pathologists discover that the deceased had not been feeling well for four weeks and had had a debilitating cough. Further study of the body, via the cadaver, reveals a cancerous growth, fluid on the lungs and a recent blood clot obstructing the trachea.

Junior pathologists must then select the cause of death from among six choices, ranging from pneumonia to emphysema to a ruptured aortic aneurysm. Those clicking on massive haemoptysis would be correct. A tumor in the man’s lung had eroded an artery wall, leading to a large loss of blood.

Visitors who aren’t studying to be doctors may find themselves overwhelmed by the biological nomenclature. I would suggest having an online dictionary handy (dictionary.reference.com) for help with the numerous polysyllabic words.

Ease of use: The site is viewable with any current browser and requires no plug-in technology.

Don’t miss: Virtual Autopsy provides some fairly simple and short anatomy and physiology lessons, including reports punctuated with illustrations covering the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, nervous and respiratory systems.

Elements on the horizon: Mr. Naylor is scheduled to review and extend the site this summer and hopes to incorporate a small number of cases of forensic interest.

Comprehension level: The site is featured in the course materials of some 120 medical teaching institutions around the world and caters to the anatomy student in both graphic presentation and verbiage.

Overall grade: A

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it’s accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the science or technology fan? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message (jszadkowski@ washingtontimes.com).

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