The PA Students Tour the MD Students’ Anatomy Lab

Posted By: Paul   |   School Life   |   6 Comments

pa school cadaver lab

The cadaver lab was a great experience

Today we were invited by the MD med students to tour the cadaver lab and see their completed dissections.

It’s a strange topic for me.

I had anatomy before beginning PA school, and my PA training class studies it constantly.  But as my pal,  Sundance, puts it, it’s the “applied” kind.   Our program has no anatomy lab class;  the program assumes you’ve had enough anatomy on entry to the program, and plenty of clinical experience to fill it out as well.  It’s something I sometimes wish for, but so far more because it looks like fun, than because I think dissecting the iliohypogastric nerve myself will serve me greatly in primary care (no, it definitely couldn’t hurt).  But instead of cadaver time, we learn anatomy in the context of our medicine courses, and there is plenty of it.

The med students were wonderful.  Their lab is a large and modern, with the latest equipment (the photos in this post are not the UCD lab, which is much bigger and better equipped).  There, we toured 16 cadaver stations, each featuring one or two students sharing the area of focus for that dissection. They were reviewing for their exams, so they were only too glad to give us  run-downs of what we were seeing.  If there was something we wanted to see and they could locate it, they were only too happy to show us.

I saw a few things I hadn’t seen when I took anatomy.  For example, my course didn’t dissect the pharynx.   I’m proud to report that I felt very competent throughout and could definitely hold my own. Sure, I didn’t know as many details as the med students, but I knew plenty, and at times my fellow PA  students and I were able to offer up some “clinical correlates” about what we were seeing.  Several times the med students admitted that we were teaching them things (they won’t do physical exam of real patients for another year).  But it wasn’t about competition.  It was a collegial sharing of medicine, and m y appreciation for their knowledge and detail was complete.   Just as well, too, since someday soon we’ll be working closely with these folks.

Proper dissection takes many hours of teamwork

Proper dissection takes many hours of teamwork

To my surprise, the experience took them off of the pedestal I once saw them on.  They weren’t any different from me: loving the chance to learn everything they can, proud to be in the

field, human–fallible even–and friendly.

There’s a humility you have to develop to work effectively in medicine.  Sure, there are people who don’t, or who slather over it with bravado.  But the culture of it — for MDs and PAs alike — is that if you do it right, there’s so much that there that you’ll never learn it all.

But damn, it’s fun to try.



We were notified that we may be returning to the lab next year for  supplemental lessons, possibly including suturing practice on cadavers – something medical students don’t get to do (they practice on pig feet).


  1. Catharine December 3, 2010 at 9:04 am - Reply

    How exciting that you were able to collaborate with the MD students! It seems like every PA program today has a slightly different method to producing new PAs, but they are all equally successful. Your class doesn’t officially take a full anatomy course; OHSU has a cadaver lab where the PA students observe the MD students dissecting, and my program will throw us right in from the beginning with our own new cadavers to dissect separately from the DO students.

    • Paul K. December 3, 2010 at 11:11 am - Reply

      That’s awesome. Milk it for all it’s worth. My other piece of advice: look for connections between what you see in the anatomy lab and the physical exam skills you learn in your practicum. Ask questions about that stuff too. For example, we got to see the “triangle of auscultation” on the back of a cadaver. It’s the closest spot you can get to the lungs on the posterior thorax. When we saw the spine flex anteriorly, a little window opened up between the scapula, the trapezius, and the latissimus dorsi — nothing but lung underneath. When I saw it on the cadaver, it made me say, “woah, no wonder we listen there!” and it reminded me to have my patients bend forward a little when I listen to their back.

  2. Ashlee December 3, 2010 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing your experience! That’s great news that our class may be invited back. Great post. =)

  3. Kate April 6, 2011 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    Cool! Thanks for sharing!! I somehow stumbled upon your site in the wee hours of the night last night during my endless search on the PA profession, hce, schools, etc. Real life student stories are awesome!!

  4. Megan August 9, 2014 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    Do you know which PA programs offer anatomy labs that allow PA students to dissect cadavers themselves? I am having difficulty finding this information online.


    • Paul August 10, 2014 at 10:46 am - Reply

      We don’t have that data currently, but it will be coming in our new version of the PA Program Directly, which is scheduled to debut this Spring!

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