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There are more than 120 medical schools in the United States and each one offers a unique academic focus with a combination of teaching methods and research opportunities. In their third and fourth years, students do rotations at hospitals and clinics, assisting in departments like surgery and pediatrics. This experience is where most students get their feet wet in terms of performing basic medical procedures and have their first hands-on experience with patients.

In preparation for rotations at hospitals and clinics, students must truly understand human anatomy. The best way to do this is by giving students the opportunity to look inside the body and learn first-hand how every organ and system works together. Having the opportunity to see muscles, tendons, ligaments, and blood vessels affords students the ability to see a healthy human body so that they can identify in the future when something isn’t functioning properly - and know how it should be.

Currently, students and professionals alike are trained using cadavers, which are often inconvenient to access. Utilizing cadavers for medical training purposes allows students to learn from real bones, tissues, and organs. Unfortunately, cadavers are expensive to handle and store and have regulations set in place to govern where cadavers can be dissected. These limitations can be problematic for educational institutions. Moreover, many developing countries do not have cadavers readily available, and may even be restricted due to cultural or religious reasons.

3D scanning can provide a viable alternative by offering the technology necessary to create exact replicas of the human body. The use of 3D scanned and printed anatomical parts allows students to learn and, more importantly, make mistakes while putting what they learn in the classroom into practice. These models provide a quick, easy, and cost-effective option to cadavers with no expiration date and less chance of deterioration, ensuring the parts can be reused multiple times.

We can see 3D anatomical models being used today in universities around the world. According to experts from Monash University, medical students are being trained using 3D anatomy kits, complete with all major body parts, including limbs, chest, abdomen, head and neck. Utilizing these types of kits will revolutionize the way medical students are being trained.

Watch: MDT Live: The Impact of 3D Printing on Healthcare (Now Available on Demand!)

In addition, websites such as Threeding.com are creating an accessible and tangible marketplace where models of 3D scanned objects can be uploaded and downloaded by users. The website currently offers human anatomical models for educational purposes, scanned by Artec 3D’s handheld scanners. The scanners are able to capture up to 16 frames per second, automatically aligning in real-time.

To ensure an accurate replica, Artec’s scanners capture objects in detail and high-resolution. The scans can then be downloaded and printed at home if an individual owns a 3D printer or ordered directly from the website. Anatomic models that are currently available for download include the human scapula, hand and foot bones, pelvis, backbone, sacrum and parts of the brain. Stores similar to Threeding.com are contributing to the ongoing education of medical students and becoming an imperative tool in the training process.

These 3D scanned parts also add value to the continued education of doctors and surgeons in hospitals and clinics. The parts enable a simulation-based educational experience, giving surgeons the ability to practice new techniques on lifelike body parts without putting patients at risk. This technology is currently being explored by professors at Northwestern Medicine. Pediatric surgery is a prime example of how 3D scanning technology can be beneficial in the medical industry, as a newborn’s chest cavity is no bigger than an egg and there is a smaller margin for error.

By utilizing 3D scanners and printers, a life-sized, reusable model of a body part can be created in a matter of hours and used repeatedly for practice. These advanced tools give doctors the ability to have real-life training prior to the operating room. Moreover, by implementing these resources, hospitals can increase the number of positive outcomes for patients and improve the accuracy of the surgical process to minimize post-operative risk and recovery time. 

3D scanning technology is making incredible strides in the healthcare industry, ensuring medical trainees feel confident in their skills prior to walking into the operating room. Just as doctors commit themselves to learning the latest treatments and techniques, it is the duty of training schools, medical programs and teaching hospitals to embrace the latest advances in medical tools and provide students with their best chance for success. Apart from using 3D scanned and printed parts for training, 3D scanners will become a common item in the toolbox of some doctors. For example, this technology has changed the process of creating prosthetics, as well as other medical areas. The convergence of the medical field and 3D technology has just begun and is setting an exciting future in motion.

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