"Digital microscopes" help future dentists at University of Michigan grow familiar with histopathology

Ann Arbor 05 June 2002The conventional light microscope may soon become the next historical artifact found in the University of Michigan School of Dentistry's Gordon H. Sindecuse Museum. Dental students who have been using the device in some of their classes are now benefiting from the latest technology instead. Dr. Carl Hanks, a professor in the Department of Oral Medicine, Pathology, and Oncology and Dr. Nisha D'Silva, an assistant professor in the same department, are developing a 21st century approach to learning histopathology. They are creating a "virtual textbook" which allows dental students to learn about pathology and histology in a novel way.

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Dr. Hanks and Dr. D'Silva have redesigned one course in the School's curriculum so that students will no longer need to use the device invented by Anton van Leeuwenhoek in the 17th century. Using resources, including the World Wide Web, the School of Dentistry's intranet, and computer centres in the dental school and across the University of Michigan (UM) campus, dental students use their laptop computers and high-speed Internet connections to view digital images of more than 50 different tissues.

The tissues have been collected from patients who have been treated for an array of maladies at School of Dentistry clinics since the 1940s and stored on slides. While the glass-mounted sections of actual tissues are helpful to demonstrate the appearance of oral diseases, they fade, crack, break, and dry out. Without an instructor present, they do not fully convey to a student the critical aspects of a disease process.

However, digital microscopy does. With their computers, dental students use their monitors as surrogate microscopes and view the enlarged images, which previously were on slides, in an electronic environment in low-, medium-, or high-powered resolution. "This user-friendly approach is something our technically savvy dental students have come to expect and will increasingly demand in the future", stated Dr. Thomas Carey, chair of the School of Dentistry's Department of Oral Medicine, Pathology, and Oncology.

"This way of learning offers enormous benefits", Dr. Carey explained. "Every student in each lab sees exactly the same thing at the same resolution. The quality of the picture is also considerably sharper compared to what they might see under a 20-year-old microscope with poor optics. These substantially improved images, in turn, raise a student's awareness so he or she can see at a glance how various oral health problems can progress if they are not properly diagnosed and treated."

There are other benefits for students and faculty. "Faculty instructional time is more efficient. The digitised images can include arrows and descriptions of the important histologic features which distinguish diseases that require different treatments", Dr. Carey stated. "Furthermore, actual cases can be used to walk students through computer-assisted decision trees for diagnosis and treatment which, in turn, reinforces lessons learned from the tissue histology."

Students benefit because digitised images can be reviewed anytime and any place there is a computer, rather than during a designated three-hour lab session. Other advantages to the high-tech approach to learning are also being realised. The School avoids a huge financial commitment, in excess of $100.000, of replacing obsolete microscopes. And at a time when space is tight, approximately 5000 feet of lab space can be used for other purposes.

Ultimately, patients will benefit from this new approach to education, according to Dr. Carey. "In short, computer-based education for teaching pathology is helping our students feel even more confident and better prepared for what they will experience outside the walls of the School of Dentistry after they graduate."

The UM School of Dentistry is engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care, and community service. General dental care clinics and speciality clinics providing advanced treatment enable the School to offer dental services and programmes to patients throughout Michigan. Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia, and public agencies. Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.


Leslie Versweyveld

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