How Much Does a Cadaver Cost?

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When people think about surgical training, one of the first things that tends to come to mind are cadavers. Cadavers have been a part of medical training for thousands of years, and are a staple of Introductory Gross Anatomy at medical schools to this day. By dissecting a preserved human body and seeing how all the pieces are connected, students gain a full understanding of its inner workings. Through their use by medical students and the occasionally lurid tales of their acquisition throughout history, cadavers have left their mark on culture the world over. However, as universities have to pay for 50-100 cadavers per year, it’s worth looking into how much is being spent on these important learning aids, especially when other more advanced and reusable solutions are becoming readily available.

The Sum of the Parts

For intact cadavers that have been donated for scientific studies, medical schools generally pay between $1000 to $2000 dollars, plus a delivery fee. However, this pricing is generally for one-time use, and certain organs may not always be in the desired condition needed for study of specific issues. When it comes to individual parts for more specialized study, prices run the gamut:

 

  • $500 for an intact head, say for studying skull-structure, brain tumors, etc.

  • $5000 for a well-kept torso, in order to study a host of different organs, most notably the lungs.

  • $3500 for a spine, necessary for studying various types of nerve injuries.

  • $650 for a knee, to observe joint structure and function.

  • $500 for a shoulder.

  • $1500 or more for eyes, to study various types of ocular conditions/degeneration.

  • $1200 for a skull with teeth to study dental composition and musculature.

  • $119,000 for a heart, to study the effects of heart disease or general cardiac function.

  • $157,000 for a liver, to study liver cancer, cirrhosis, etc.

  •  $262,000 for kidneys

  • $10/sq in. of skin, for the study of various dermatological issues.

 

It should be noted that unlike full bodies, there are very few regulations regarding the sale of individual body parts, so basically anyone is able to sell them.

Legal Procurement

As the buying and selling of intact bodies is illegal in the United States, legal procurement often takes the form of people donating their bodies for study after death. Families can sometimes be persuaded to donate the bodies of recently deceased relatives in exchange for coverage of medical costs or the costs of handling the body after death. Organizations like the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois seek to help individuals and their families with donation. Even with help, acquiring intact bodies isn’t the easiest process.

 Photo by  Wendy Scofield  on  Unsplash  

Photo by Wendy Scofield on Unsplash 

Less-Than-Legal Procurement  

There is, of course, the matter of illegal procurement. History is no stranger to examples of the darker side of medical education, where enterprising and morally flexible people have gone to nearly any lengths to obtain bodies to sell for hefty prices to medical colleges, whether that be grave-robbing or even worse. In more recent times, human trafficking has occasionally served as the origin for some cadavers, though these cases are hard to quantify because of their underground nature.

Where is Every Body?

 In recent years organ donations are on the rise, and while that is excellent news for transplant patients, the increase is leading to unuseable cadavers with organs missing, unsuited to medical education. As a result demand for cadavers is up over the last 20 years, with more and more first year medical students enrolling at an increasing numbers of competing universities. Compounding the problem, donations have gone down steadily since 1984. As these trends continue, their is a pressing need for alternative solutions.

The Case for Realistic Virtual Cadavers

Human cadavers are expensive, increasingly difficult to procure, and are often possibly ethically compromised. While these things have always been true, new technology is finally beginning to offer a viable alternative to cadavers. Fully immersive medical virtual reality (VR) simulation is becoming more widely available, allowing medical students to practice in lifelike but non-real environments. The reliance of schools on cadavers can finally begin to ease.


Find out more about the pros and cons of these learning tools.

Nik Amar