What virtual design and model building has in store for the new generation of doctors and patients alike.

Medical Education

“See one. Do one. Teach one,” is the central dogma of medical education. The infamous adage quickly transformed into reality when I began rotating as a clinical clerk in various disciplines across medicine and surgery.

I’ve had the privilege of assisting in the care of many patients. I vividly recall being asked to help drain an elderly Portuguese gentleman’s malignant pleural effusion (fluid accumulation between the lining of the lungs). “How many chest tubes have you seen?” inquired my senior resident. The answer: a measly, one! I frantically attempted to recall all the important steps, from my days practicing on a low-fidelity porcine model in the surgical skills lab. We discussed the relevant steps, important structures and potential complications: “be careful not to puncture the lung, or penetrate the liver.” I began under his watchful eye, with a rudimentary picture of the underlying anatomical intricacies. Still unsure as to why the “triangle of safety” was the best place to breach the various layers of the chest wall, or how the lungs were positioned in relation to the pleural space where the tube was to be placed.


3D Models

Medicine is replete with countless such cases demanding a strong conceptual understanding of anatomy and physiology on the part of the junior trainee. 3D visualization plays a key role in facilitating the understanding of such complex phenomena. Enter 3D printing – a process for making three dimensional solid objects from digital files. 3D models, digitally designed using high resolution computer tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance (MR) images, offer a high level of anatomical detail, accuracy, and customization that generic models have failed to provide.

The use of 3D printed models in medical education is driven by the need to find alternatives to oversimplified mannequins, animal models, and cadavers that are accompanied by a slew of storage and accessibility issues. From teaching relatively simple bedside procedures and anatomical concepts, to high-risk, clinically challenging operations, they can be used to train the entire spectrum of medical students, physicians and surgeons. In fact, several studies have reported improved trainee performance and confidence when learning with 3D printed models as opposed to 2D methods including textbooks and radiographic imaging.


Patient Education

3D printed models have also proven to be informative tools for patient education. The use of interactive models to illustrate medical conditions and explain a procedure can certainly enhance the doctor-patient relationship and have been shown to improve patient satisfaction and consent rates. One prospective study used radiographic images to create life-size patient-specific 3D printed models of  kidney tumours. After viewing their personal 3D kidney model, patients demonstrated an improved understanding of basic kidney anatomy by 50%, and an improved understanding of the planned surgical procedure by 45%!

Although, all of the cost implications of 3D printing are yet to be realized, preliminary studies report up to a 95% cost reduction versus plastic models. For instance, a $14,000 model can be replaced by a $350 3D printed replica.

3D printing is at the forefront of technology’s rapid infiltration into the healthcare sector. Its time we embrace its role in training budding physicians and for improving the delivery of high quality patient-centered care.


13617598_10154425643943304_1372931029_nDhruvin Hirpara is a third year medical student at the University of Toronto, with a special interest in the intersection of technology, medical/surgical education and patient care. He writes for Digim3d, a digital modelling and 3D printing company that creates custom high-quality anatomical models for medical and patient education.

You can follow him on Twitter: Dhruvin Hirpara


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