How does Donor Dissection Influence Medical Students' Perceptions of Ethics? A Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Qualitative Study

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The contribution of donor dissection to modern anatomy pedagogy remains debated. While short-term anatomy knowledge gains from dissection are questionable, studies suggest that donor dissection may have other impacts on students including influencing medical students' professional development, though evidence for such is limited. To improve the understanding of how anatomy education influences medical student professional development, the cross-sectional and longitudinal impacts of donor dissection on medical students' perceptions of ethics were explored. A cross-sectional and longitudinal qualitative study was undertaken at an Australian university where student responses to online discussion forums and in-person interviews were analyzed. Data were collected across the 1.5 years that undergraduate medical students received anatomy instruction (three semesters during first and second years). A total of 207 students participated in the online discussion forums, yielding 51,024 words; 24 students participated in at least 1 of 11 interviews, yielding over 11 hours of interview data. Framework analysis identified five themes related to ethics in an anatomical education context: (1) Dignity, (2) Beneficence, (3) Consent, (4) Justification for versus the necessity of dissection, and (5) Dichotomy of objectification and personification. The dominant themes of students' ethical perceptions changed with time, with a shift from focusing on donors as people, toward the utility of donors in anatomy education. Additionally, themes varied by student demographics including gender, ancestry, and religiosity. Together this study suggests a strong impact of donor dissection on priming students' focus on medical ethics and provides further advocacy for formal and purposeful integration of medical ethics with anatomy education.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)332-348
Number of pages17
JournalAnatomical Sciences Education
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2019


  • gross anatomy education
  • medical education
  • ethics
  • hidden curriculum
  • anatomy dissection
  • medical student

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