Medical science is constantly evolving. New techniques, procedures and technologies are introduced, adapted, perfected and finally adopted, helping advance the art and science of medicine continually. Regardless of the nature of such changes, the goal remains the same: to improve patient outcomes, advance research and enhance the teaching of best practices.
Three-dimensional (3D) medical imaging — and 3D medical animation — are examples of such technological advances. Each has quickly become indispensable to the practice — and teaching — of modern medicine. For example, 3D medical animation is now used for everything from enhancing medical research to improving patient education and compliance; to helping pharmaceutical and medical device makers market their products more effectively.
3D Imagery and Medicine
Since its widespread introduction in the early 1970s, computerized axial tomography (CT) scan has become an indispensable tool in medicine. Of course, CT is a natural extension of older X-ray imaging technology. The advent of computers with sufficient computing power facilitated the development of this groundbreaking technology, which integrates numerous two-dimensional images of internal structures and tissues into a composite, virtual-3D set of images. The resulting scan allows doctors to take a virtual visual tour of a patient’s body.
This has obviously been an enormous boon to medicine, as the human body exists in three — not two — dimensions. Subsequent 3D imaging techniques, such as positron emission tomography (PET) scan and other options have greatly enhanced our ability to diagnose conditions non-invasively and formulate appropriate approaches to treatment.
Just as 3D imaging was a natural fit for the advancement of medical diagnosis and treatment, 3D animation has proven equally useful for other aspects of medicine. The reasons are similar in both instances. Human anatomy, physiology and biochemistry are complex subjects. Teaching — and learning — about these complicated subjects and processes can be equally challenging.
3D Animation as a Tool for Education and Marketing
Educators have long relied on medical illustration to illuminate some of these intricacies. Though some of the same technological advances that made 3D imaging possible have also enabled the development of insightful, informative and instructional 3D animations. Modern medical animation represents a harmonious marriage between the art of traditional medical illustration and modern computer design and animation techniques.
By exploiting these tools, medical animators are able to bring challenging information to life. Indeed, 3D medical animation is virtually indispensable to today’s competitive medical device marketers and pharmaceutical salespeople for the rapid communication of complex concepts, procedures, devices and/or mechanisms of action.
Medical animation is also increasingly common — and essential — in the classroom. Research suggests, for example, that 3D animation used in the instruction of complex subjects, such as embryonic development, improves long-term retention among medical students.
Educators advocate the teaching of complicated subjects, such as cellular and molecular biology, through the use of medical animation as well. It’s easy to understand why 3D imaging is proving so crucial, when you consider that even microscopic structures, such as proteins, exist in three dimensions, not two.
Improving on the Past — Looking Toward the Future
Indeed, the 3D structures of proteins determine their functionality and other properties. As such, they cannot be represented readily in 2D without accepting serious compromises. Only 3D provides the appropriate format for adequately representing these structures without sacrificing key information — information that underlies the amazing utility and versatility of these molecular workhorse molecules.
3D animation as a marketing aid is an obvious choice for medical device makers. Physicians and administrators are constantly bombarded with demands for their time and attention. Concise medical animations are an easy way for marketers to convey the intricacies — and advantages—of their products, quickly and effectively. Properly rendered medical animations can illuminate challenging processes or procedures far more quickly than would be possible using words, text or graphics alone.
It seems clear that 3D medical animation is not just a natural extension of techniques — such as 2D medical illustration, and the creation of physical 3D models, which have existed for centuries. Rather, it’s also the future of medicine. Proponents note that 3D animation, aided by computer modeling and other techniques, is an increasingly indispensable tool for teaching, patient education, planning of complex surgeries, and the marketing of drugs and devices.
Nic Widerhold is the owner of the 3D medical animation studio, Ghost Productions. His team of professionals creates custom medical animations and illustrations for a wide range of uses in the healthcare industry.