Whether it's rhinoplasty or breast augmentation, the general timeline of a cosmetic surgery consultation is relatively consistent: a patient walks in with an idea—often equipped with pictures—and a plastic surgeon outlines what they can do.
Historically, doctors have evolved from sketching proposed changes to embracing two-dimensional imaging on computers to incorporating 3D imaging. Now, some practices are adopting 3D printed models to offer patients a sort of blueprint that they can physically hold and touch with their own hands, and make the $13.5 billion cosmetic procedure industry even more accessible.
Dr. Anthony Youn, a Detroit-based plastic surgeon and author of The Age Fix, said 3D printed models are the next evolutionary step in providing patients with a "before" and "after."
The technology also helps with communication in the office. "The thing we always want to avoid is somebody regretting having a procedure done," Youn said. "Anything we can do, in general, to better educate the patients, in my opinion, is good. If we can give them an idea of what they're going to get, it can hopefully help them make the right decision for themselves."
For plastic surgeons—who annually earn, on average, $355,000—3D printed models could also make business even smoother. In 2015, Dr. Carrie Stern launched MirrorMe3D, a company that prints 3D models of faces and other body parts, after observing patient uncertainty with the plastic surgery process.
Using a color jet printer, 3D data, and gypsum (a chalk-like mineral), MirrorMe3D can deliver models in as early as a week. Alternatively, Ireland-based Mcor Technologies—a paper-based full-color 3D printing company founded by brothers Dr. Conor MacCormack and Fintan MacCormack—brings 3D printers directly to a surgeon's practice.
"It is another additive tool for patients to understand their surgical outcomes," said Dr. David H. Song, a plastic surgeon and president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. "In the right setting with the right educational material, it just enhances the doctor-patient relationship. It gives a starting point for a more rich discussion."
Dr. Neil Tanna, a plastic surgeon in New York who has used MirrorMe3D, said the benefits of printing a 3D model are twofold. "You basically print out the 3D photograph into a 3D model and you can use that as a baseline to discuss with the patient," Tanna said. "Instead of pointing at pictures, you can show the exact problem. Then, we can use that in the operating room and reference the model."
In Turkey, Dr. Yakup Avşar, founder of AVSAR,an aesthetic surgery clinic in Istanbul, uses Mcor's 3D printer to create "before" and "after" models for his patients. Using a 3D scanner and modeling software, he generates digital 3D images that are used to print life-size models. Avşar, who produces roughly 20 3D printed models a month at his practice, said "it is what the patients want."
One limitation; however, is patient expectation. While providing a more realistic image could be an asset, Song said, it also sets up even higher expectations, even if doctors mention there is no guarantee that their surgeries will provide the exact same results. "That has to be worked through because surgery is an imperfect science—it's not like math where two plus two always equals four."
Another caveat is the cost. Models from MirrorMe3D, for example, range from $100 to $400, while the most recent device from Mcor Technologies, the ARKe, retails for $17,995—an already low price point for a 3D printing machine of its caliber. According to Conor MacCormack, developing technology continues to make 3D printing increasingly affordable and, in turn, makes it a functional reality for cosmetic surgeons. Case in point: the predecessor for the ARKe, the IRIS, cost $50,000.
Read more: Scientists Successfully Transplanted 3D Printed Human Body Parts Into Rats
So far, 3D printed models appear to be a success when it comes to patient fulfillment. Tanna said his patients are in "awe of the innovation" and Avşar said his patients are "very happy" with the results. Youn, meanwhile, predicts the new technology is here to stay.
"I think in the future, these are the kinds of things that are going to be in a plastic surgeon's office," Youn said.
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