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Is it just semantics? Medical students and their ‘first patients’
  1. Natalie Cohen
  1. Medical School, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY 10029, USA
  1. Correspondence to Natalie Cohen, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York NY 10029, USA; natalie.cohen{at}


There have been multiple factors involved in the decline of the anatomy course’s central role in medical education over the last century. The course has undergone a multitude of changes, in large part due to the rise in technology and cultural shifts away from physical dissection. This paper argues that, as the desire of medical schools to introduce clinical experiences earlier in the curriculum increased, anatomy courses began implementing changes that would align themselves with the shifting culture towards incorporating humanistic values early on in the medical curriculum. One of these changes, argued as a product of this shift, included calling a cadaver a ‘patient’ and introducing the cadaver as a student’s ‘first patient’. This change has been seen in different universities and textbooks. This paper argues that the use of the words ‘patient’ to describe the cadaver in order to promote principled habits in medical students may in fact create an environment that does the opposite. By equating an environment in which the subject of dissection is lifeless and incapable of participation, and the space is discouraging of emotions and conducive to untested coping mechanisms to the clinical environment through using the word ‘patient’, values like detached concern, a controversial practice in medicine, can be implicitly encouraged. An ethical analysis of the use of the word ’patient’ to describe the cadaver shows that this practice can promote unethical habits in students and that changing this aspect of anatomy lab culture could improve ethical dispositions of future physicians.

  • education for health care professionals
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  • Contributors The sole author is responsible for the conception, drafting and final approval of this article.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Collaborators Paul Cummins, PhD.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

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