Three dimensional printers are becoming an increasingly important tool for surgeons and other doctors because they enable better planning for surgeries. Surgeons report feeling more confident in their methods when they are able to use a 3-D model as part of their planning, and studies show patients benefit from the 3-D models as well.
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Interpreting two-dimensional images and scans takes a lot of skill and training, but, even for the most experienced radiologists, it can still be tricky. But 3-D printers are able to take two-dimensional images and scans and layer by layer create 3-D models that are identical in size and shape to a patient's own body parts.
Dr. Jonathan Morris and Dr. Jane Matsumoto oversee one of the 3-D printer labs at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Dr. Morris says doctors and surgeons are increasingly using 3-D models to better plan operations, so they know exactly what to expect inside a patient's body.
"One, it helped educate the surgeon on where the complex anatomy and structures were, but it also helped them talk to the patient, discuss with the patient how they were going to do the surgery, and what was at risk," Dr. Morris said. "Most patients don't understand CT scans, MRI scans."
Dr. Morris says, because the models help surgeons more thoroughly plan operations, they are often able to make smaller incisions, cut down on the time patients have to be under anesthesia and improve overall outcomes from surgery.
"Because from a surgical perspective, many times they're operating through small keyholes," Dr. Morris says. "So they're looking through a small scope. They have it on the video, but they don't see the forest. You can't see the whole chest. You can't see where all the nerves are, where all the blood vessels are. And you're taking tumors out in a way where you don't want to disrupt other tissue, but you want to take out as much of the tumor as you can."
"So anything we can give them information wise that allows them to be more confident, allows them to have less-invasive surgeries while still understanding that whole big picture of the patient while they're operating in smaller incisions, that became incredibly useful," he says.
Surgeons at Mayo Clinic first started using 3-D models in 2008 while planning an operation to separate conjoined twins. Since then, Dr. Morris says doctors across all specialties have found ways to utilize 3-D models.