Survey finds the general public knows little about basic human anatomy

With the exception of a handful of major organs, a recent poll of 63 Lancaster, England, residents yielded one clear result: The global public suffers from a lack of knowledge of basic human anatomy—a phenomenon that could compromise future healthcare efforts and the efficacy of clinical systems.

In a study published in Anatomical Sciences Education, Adam M. Taylor, PhD, and colleagues explored how informed the public is of basic anatomical knowledge in a casual, open setting. As part of its spring 2016 “Campus in the City” program, researchers from Lancaster University set up a variety of days-long seminars that were open to the public. The “human body” event, which was used for Taylor et al.’s research and organized by two anatomists, attracted 459 visitors over four days, during which attendees were able to engage with the medical experts and test their own knowledge of the human body.

“It’s valuable,” Taylor told Cardiovascular Business of the medical learning process. “It enables people to make better, more informed choices about their health and wellbeing. It also enables them to utilize healthcare services more efficiently as well as have a better understanding of the information that might be conveyed to them when dealing with doctors or other healthcare providers.”

The handful of participants who volunteered to take an anatomical knowledge survey were asked to identify 20 structures—the brain, cornea, lungs, liver, diaphragm, heart, stomach, appendix, bladder, kidneys, pancreas, gallbladder, spleen, adrenal glands, thyroid, hamstrings, biceps, triceps, quadriceps and cruciate ligament—on a blank human body template. According to Taylor and co-authors, these organs and structures were handpicked based on what the public might be exposed to most often in everyday life, TV shows, sports and commercials.

The only organ placed correctly by 100 percent of the subject pool was the brain, the researchers reported. The biceps muscle and the cornea followed closely behind, while smaller structures proved more difficult to identify. The most-missed targets were the adrenal glands—less than 15 percent of participants knew where they were located, according to the study, with most believing they were located in the neck. The spleen and gallbladder were also consistently misidentified.

“We were surprised by the performance of the abdominal organs and how poorly answered some were,” Taylor said. “(But) we were really pleased to see how well some individuals did, particularly those at the younger end of the spectrum of individuals surveyed.”

Taylor and colleagues wrote the number of correct answers showed a weak but statistically significant quadratic trend with age. There were also several differences between sexes; men more commonly correctly identified muscle placement when compared with women, but suffered when it came to internal organs. Volunteers in the healthcare profession or a related field scored significantly better than those working other jobs, but education level seemed to have little effect on the quiz, with both graduates and non-graduates answering similarly.

The public’s fascination with the human body dates back to the fourteenth century, the authors wrote, when cadaveric dissections gained popularity and distinguished themselves as public events. Educational museums and exhibits like “Body Worlds” have spurred those connections, Taylor said, but haven’t necessarily boosted general knowledge about the body, which could be crucial for patients visiting speciality clinics for organ-specific treatment.

Some of these speciality patients, the researchers noted in the study, can’t even locate their affected organ. A Prostate Cancer UK poll found that more than half of a 2,000-person pool didn’t know the anatomical location of the prostate. Seventeen percent were unaware they possessed a prostate, and just 8 percent knew its function, Taylor and co-authors wrote.

“There is a clear thirst for knowledge from the public around anatomy, and it presents an educational opportunity to ensure knowledge and communication within the public and healthcare community are efficiently exchanged and lead to better outcomes for all involved,” Taylor said.