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Is Cadaver Dissection Still Necessary in Surgical Education?

Roy Phitayakorn, MD, MHPE, FACS; Dana Stearns, MD; Esther Kim, MD

June 18, 2024

Key Learning Objectives

  • Articulate the challenges of cadaver labs in current anatomy education for trainees.

  • Discuss the advantages of cadaver labs in anatomy education.

  • Explore alternative methods for teaching anatomy.

  • Discuss future roles and directions for cadaver labs.


Cadaver dissection has been the traditional method for teaching and learning anatomy in medical education since the 3rd century. By the 18th century, cadaver-based teaching had become a core component of medical education.1 However, the COVID-19 pandemic, technological advancements providing alternative models for learning anatomy, as well as progressively increasing basic, social, and clinical scientific knowledge vying for space in medical education curriculum raise an important question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of using cadavers to teach anatomy in modern medical education?


In the 1980s, medical school curricular reforms led to a reduction in didactic and laboratory-based methods focused on problem-based learning and clinical reasoning pedagogy.1 Anatomy education was greatly reduced for several reasons. Cadaver acquisition and preservation were (and remain) expensive, and prolonged exposures to standard aliphatic preservation agents can lead to health risks.2 Furthermore, traditional cadaveric dissection requires an extensive amount of time and skill acquisition to finish, competing against the growing foundation of medical knowledge that must also be learned. In addition, Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) guidelines recommended limiting the number of hours of scheduled synchronous coursework. This provided additional challenges for course directors and forced curriculum committees to make hard choices. As a result, anatomy education became significantly truncated, and in many programs, cadaver-based laboratory methods were reduced to prosection-based exploration or eliminated altogether.1 Finally, cadaver-based teaching was very difficult to continue during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the need to limit synchronous in-person sessions to small groups.3-5


Despite the disadvantages described above, medical students, residents, and educators have collectively shown favorable attitudes to learning anatomy and surgical skills by cadaver dissection compared to alternative modalities alone.2, 7-9 In one study, two classes of medical students’ anatomy education were compared before and after the start of the pandemic. The pre-COVID class attended regular cadaver anatomy laboratory sessions that included elements of dissection and expressed higher confidence in their knowledge, technical skills, and clinical skills compared to the class of medical students who attended a virtual anatomy lab.7 Both groups demonstrated favorable attitudes towards having cadaver dissection as part of their curriculum and the second group notably demonstrated a higher rate of disengagement during their virtual anatomy learning experience. This may be due, at least in part, to challenges with developing spatial knowledge and a lack of hands-on experience with virtual labs alone.

Implementing cadaveric dissection curricula in surgical residencies has also shown improved trainee confidence, anatomical knowledge, and surgical skills by both trainees and faculty, leading to greater autonomy in the operating room.8,9 These findings indicate that cadaver dissection remains a valuable component of anatomical and surgical education.

A Way Forward?

Other than the traditional cadaver dissection labs, there are currently numerous alternative and more affordable modalities for anatomy education. These include traditional textbooks/atlases, 3D models, digital media, social media, interactive software and simulators, augmented or video reality,1-4 and, even, body painting.10 However, with so many options, it may feel overwhelming and challenging to gauge which modality is best for a given program’s pedagogical goals.

Each of these modalities are comparable to each other and cadaver-based dissection. A meta-analysis by Wilson and colleagues (2018) demonstrated that there were no significant differences in student’s test scores when traditional cadaver dissection was the primary learning method compared to alternative approaches such as 3D models, prosection, digital media, or hybrid approaches.5 Another study suggests that prior anatomical knowledge had a stronger influence on short-term retention of information than the type of learning modality utilized.6 Therefore, a multimodal approach that includes cadaver dissection may be most cost effective for institutions and efficacious for learners.2,5 This approach should include cadaver labs that are also supplemented with textbooks, multimedia learning modules, and video-based training.8,9,11 Adopting a vertical integration model where anatomy modules are revisited at different points in the medical school curricula (during the pre-clinical and clinical years) as well as regular postgraduate integration (for example, invasive procedure laboratory sessions) provides repetitive exposure to level-appropriate anatomy education and may also help to reinforce learning.


In conclusion, while whole cadaver dissection may never return as the primary modality for surgical education, cadaver dissection remains an essential component of surgical education for learners at all levels. The future of surgical anatomy education lies with vertical and longitudinal integration that aligns anatomical concepts with clinical content as the learners’ experience and context expand. A multimodal approach with a stepwise progression of selective and procedure-based anatomical dissection will likely prove more beneficial both pedagogically and economically. Additional work will include the use of fresh cadaver dissection or more life-like cadaver preservation techniques for teaching multi-step invasive surgical procedures such as placing chest tubes, performing cricothyrotomies, taking biopsies, or performing larger operative procedures. Surgical educators must continue to strongly advocate for anatomy education and champion innovative methods to integrate anatomy education well beyond the pre-clinical medical school years.


  1. Memon I. Cadaver Dissection Is Obsolete in Medical Training! A Misinterpreted Notion. Med Princ Pract. 2018;27(3):201-210. doi:10.1159/000488320 
  2. Varner C, Dixon L, Simons MC. The Past, Present, and Future: A Discussion of Cadaver Use in Medical and Veterinary Education. Front Vet Sci. 2021;8:720740. Published 2021 Nov 10. doi:10.3389/fvets.2021.720740 
  3. Attardi SM, Harmon DJ, Barremkala M, et al. An analysis of anatomy education before and during Covid-19: August-December 2020. Anat Sci Educ. 2022;15(1):5-26. doi:10.1002/ase.2152 
  4. Shin M, Prasad A, Sabo G, et al. Anatomy education in US Medical Schools: before, during, and beyond COVID-19. BMC Med Educ. 2022;22(1):103. Published 2022 Feb 16. doi:10.1186/s12909-022-03177-1 
  5. Iwanaga J, Loukas M, Dumont AS, Tubbs RS. A review of anatomy education during and after the COVID-19 pandemic: Revisiting traditional and modern methods to achieve future innovation. Clin Anat. 2021;34(1):108-114. doi:10.1002/ca.23655 
  6. Lackey-Cornelison WL, Bauler LD, Smith J. A comparison of the effectiveness of dissection and prosection on short-term anatomic knowledge retention in a reciprocal peer-teaching program. Adv Physiol Educ. 2020;44(2):239-246. doi:10.1152/advan.00031.2020 
  7. Kochhar S, Tasnim T, Gupta A. Is cadaveric dissection essential in medical education? A qualitative survey comparing pre-and post-COVID-19 anatomy courses. J Osteopath Med. 2022;123(1):19-26. Published 2022 Aug 30. doi:10.1515/jom-2022-0016 
  8. Kim SC, Fisher JG, Delman KA, Hinman JM, Srinivasan JK. Cadaver-Based Simulation Increases Resident Confidence, Initial Exposure to Fundamental Techniques, and May Augment Operative Autonomy. J Surg Educ. 2016;73(6):e33-e41. doi:10.1016/j.jsurg.2016.06.014 
  9. Juo YY, Hanna C, Chi Q, et al. Mixed-Method Evaluation of a Cadaver Dissection Course for General Surgery Interns: An Innovative Approach for Filling the Gap Between Gross Anatomy and the Operating Room. J Surg Educ. 2018;75(6):1526-1534. doi:10.1016/j.jsurg.2018.03.010 
  10. McMenamin PG, McLachlan J, Wilson A, et al. Do we really need cadavers anymore to learn anatomy in undergraduate medicine?. Med Teach. 2018;40(10):1020-1029. doi:10.1080/0142159X.2018.1485884 
  11. Jajja MR, Lovasik BP, Kim SC, et al. Can a Structured, Video-Based Cadaver Curriculum Demonstrating Proficiency Enhance Resident Operative Autonomy?. J Surg Educ. 2019;76(6):e152-e160. doi:10.1016/j.jsurg.2019.08.004 


Roy Phitayakorn, MD, MHPE, FACS
Vice chair of education, Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Surgery
Associate professor of surgery, Harvard Medical School
Dana Stearns, MD
Director of anatomy education, pathways curriculum, Harvard Medical School
Assistant professor of emergency medicine and surgery, Harvard Medical School
Esther Kim, MD
General surgery resident, University of Miami Hospital and Clinics
Surgical education and simulation research fellow, Massachusetts General Hospital