How 3D tech is allowing doctors to take 'practice swings' before heart operations

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When a surgeon interprets an MRI or CT scan, it requires some imagination to visualize the picture beyond the two dimensions.

Dr. Shafkat Anwar, co-founder and co-director of the UCSF Center for Advanced 3D+ Technologies, told KCBS Radio's "As Prescribed" on Thursday his team uses an assortment of 3D printers and AR technology to take the mystery out of medical imaging.

"What we literally do is make a replica of the patient’s anatomy," he said.

"Using the example of heart surgery," he explained. "We’re able to do a heart scan, and then literally print out your heart – if you were to have heart surgery – so that the surgeon doing your procedure will be able to practice before the procedure itself.

"It’s kind of like taking a swing at a batting cage or going to the driving range and practicing your golf swing before a big game."

As a pediatric cardiologist, he knows the practice is particularly helpful when dealing with hearts that fit into the palm of his hand.

"Our tiniest patients, their hearts are about the size of walnuts, and the blood vessels that go into the heart or come out of the heart, they’re about just a few strands of hair wide," he said.

"We’re working in very small spaces and a misstep here or there can lead to very catastrophic consequences."

The models can also be used for medical student training, and to help explain complex procedures to families.

"Sometimes we’re operating on children, and families are being asked when their kids are just a couple of days old to decide on surgeries that’ll impact them for the rest of their lives," said Anwar. "So, as much as possible, we use our 3D printed models or our electronic models to go over the surgeries with our families, and really engage with them in a kind of a shared decision-making process."

Watch the video above to learn how Anwar’s team is also using virtual reality technology in the operating room.