ROCHESTER, Minn. -- 3D printing is being used at Mayo Clinic to help surgeons better understand a patient's anatomy before heading to the operating room. It's been around at Mayo Clinic for nearly 10 years but the demand is growing every year.

Mayo Clinic's 3D anatomic modeling program began in 2008 when surgeons were planning the separation of conjoined twins. They were able to look at a 3D model of the babies' shared liver before performing the surgery.

"The last thing you want to be doing is making rash or rushed decisions based on anatomy that you're maybe not as familiar with and this makes everything kind of crystal clear," said Dr. Jonathan Morris, a neuroradiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

The 3D models are used for complex surgeries. For example, Dr. Morris showed a model of a tumor on a patient's spine. That life-size model was made from the patient's CT or MRI scans.

The surgical team can look at that 3D model to better prepare for the surgery. They can also perform a simulated surgery on the model. This allows surgeons to take away a lot of the unknowns before entering the operating room.

According to Dr. Morris, the 3D models can also save time in the operating room.

"The operating room is really expensive... sometimes up to $150 dollars a minute," Dr. Morris said. "So if we can save 30 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour off a procedure... that's cost effective."

Not only can the 3D models help surgeons understand a patient's anatomy in ways a 2D image cannot, it can help patients better understand their surgery.

"It's not a new idea but the use of it has certainly exploded," Dr. Morris said.

The 3D printers run seven days a week, almost nonstop. Mayo Clinic has four industrial 3D printers in the Department of Engineering and three printers of various technologies in the Department of Radiology.
Creating the models can take a couple hours or a couple days, depending on the size.

"You've allowed the patient to have a better outcome because a surgeon was better prepared as he entered the room and I think that's allowed us to progress care at Mayo in a way that we wouldn't be able to without 3D printing," Dr. Morris said.

According to Dr. Morris, the number of models printed at Mayo Clinic grows every year.