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November 22nd, 2013

Hey look, that’s my kidney

By Hoyt Finnamore

It's no secret that surgeons can face any number of challenges whenever they bring a patient into the operating room. But for David Thiel, M.D., urologist and medical director of the J. Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver Multi-Disciplinary Simulation Center at Mayo Clinic in Florida, none is perhaps more challenging than making sure his patients truly understand the procedures they're about to have. "Our biggest challenge as surgeons is getting people to understand exactly what we are doing, and not only what we are doing, but how difficult it can be," he says. Fortunately for Dr. Thiel and others, Mayo Clinic's Florida campus is now one of six medical institutions in the country to have a new tool called "virtual dissection tables" to help bridge the communication gap.

Think of the touch screen on your smartphone. Now imagine that as a nice, easy-to-read 7 feet by 2 1/2 feet. The virtual dissection tables take advantage of "20th-century technological advancements in X-rays, ultrasound and MRIs" to allow users like Dr. Thiel to easily show patients "hard-to-reach" parts of the human body, according to a story produced by Ivanhoe Broadcasting that was picked up by various media outlets. Mayo Clinic Tech Specialist Conrad Dove likes to refer to the table as something of a "reusable" cadaver. "We can take a thin slice CT of any patient we want, and we can virtualize them in six to 12 minutes, and we can have them on the table," Dove says. With the swipe of a finger, the body images on the table's screen can then be "put back together again" right before your eyes.

Regardless of what you call them, Dr. Thiel says the tables are greatly improving the way he and his surgical team prepare for surgical procedures. "As an urologist, one of the things that I do for kidney cancer is to actually cut out the tumor and leave the kidney behind," he says. "We need to know where exactly the blood vessels are that go to the kidneys." And by using the 3-D imaging capabilities of the tables, Dr. Thiel says he can now help his surgical team better visualize all that and more before they actually began operating.

And Dr. Thiel says all of that is, in fact, helping improve the way he and his team provide patient care. "A focus of medicine now is individualized medicine," he says, and he and his team envision eventually taking these types of 3-D images and making them even more real by using a 3-D printer to make a model of the actual kidney with the tumor to show to the patient. "We take something that is very abstract to you and put it in your hand as a model," he says. "We think that will improve the patient experience and let them understand exactly what we are doing."

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