University urges public to donate bodies for research and teaching

HKU launches a donation day designed to address a shortage of human cadavers that is affecting the teaching of medical students

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 March, 2013, 5:08am

The University of Hong Kong launched its first body donation day yesterday to encourage the public to help it deal with a severe shortage of human cadavers for research and teaching.

The medical faculty receives only three to five donated corpses each year. Many of the 20 corpses needed for research and autopsy training come from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department which collects unclaimed bodies of homeless people.

Chan Lap-ki, associate professor of the university's department of anatomy, said better economic conditions meant there were fewer unclaimed bodies from homeless people.

"If the conditions continue, medical students will have no bodies for use," Chan said.

The department of hygiene's figures show they provided 66 corpses to the two medical faculties at Chinese University and the University of Hong Kong in 2012, compared with 76 in 2009.

Chan said they had signed up 700 potential donors so far.

"We need a minimum of 20 corpses every year. Our body donation programme was launched 40 years ago. In the past few years, we have only received three to five donated corpses."

The government has increased the intake at the two medical faculties in Hong Kong by 50. The number of HKU's Year One medical students rose from 160 to 210 last September.

"In the past, one corpse has been used by eight students in a group. Now it is 10," Chan said.

Despite advances in technology and computer software, Chan said there was no substitute for the real thing.

"Computers can create 3D mock-ups of blood vessels or other parts of human bodies. But when a student conducts surgery after they complete medical school, they do not do that on a computer screen. Medical training is a tactile experience in which a student has to feel the human body."

Chan said an advantage of learning with real bodies was to nurture respect for human life.

"During the first anatomy lesson, we set aside time for a ceremony where students will observe a moment for silence. We want the students to understand that it's not a animal corpse they work on. It's a human body which used to have a life."

Chan said the university would work closely with relatives to ensure the greatest respect for the deceased. "Depending on the wishes of family, the send-off ceremony can be conducted at a hospital or funeral parlour after which the body will be sent to us. We will do antiseptic preservation for a year and the body will be used for anatomy for another year. Afterwards, we will work with the food and environmental hygiene department in cremating the remains and the family can get the ashes back. It actually can save on burial costs and is environmentally-friendly."