Just saying the word “surgery” to a patient often creates a dilemma for doctors. The patient invariably withdraws, and is no longer receptive to any other information, making planning for the procedure, and follow-up care, like physical therapy, difficult. “In my experience, once a patient has heard the word ‘surgery’ they often forget everything else in the discussion,” said Dr. Michael H. Metcalf, an orthopedic surgeon with the practice of Rosenberg Cooley Metcalf, in Park City, Utah.

But new 3-D medical education applications designed for mobile platforms like the iPhone and Android devices, are changing the way surgical specialists educate patients about upcoming operations, easing their anxiety, and, possibly hastening healing.

The animated apps illustrate the procedure for the patient, taking them inside 3D images of the shoulder, or the spine, or the throat, or any other part of the human anatomy. By showing, rather than telling, the patients what to expect, doctors have found that those in their care are more amenable, and this, moreover, reduces tension for family members and even the surgeons once in the operating theater.

Holistic Holograms

These sophisticated animations even present anatomical pictures akin to holograms, drawn with such detail that they can be viewed from every angle with extreme accuracy. Shortly, developers say, an additional layer of animation will be incorporated into the mobile medical apps, bringing patients into a virtual reality world.

“It gives me the ability to really provide my patients and their families clear and lasting information about their condition that won't fade as soon as they leave my office,” says Dr. Robert Faux, an orthopedic surgeon with the Central Utah Clinic in Provo, Utah. “Patient education is the future of successful practice."

One of the developers of these apps is Orca Health, a five-year-old firm, founded by a father-and-son team. The company has already licensed more than 30,000 subscriptions for its apps to doctor’s offices and hospitals around the U.S. The doctors show the animations in their offices, on mobile devices, to patients, and then e-mail the applications to the patients’ own phones, where they can download them, and view them on their own.

The concept for the software apps was born of necessity. Health insurance companies are cutting back on patient education reimbursement, previously done by junior physicians, residents, as part of their training, or others working for the surgeons, said Matt Berry, co-founder and  CEO of Orca Health, in an interview with Foxnews.com. Automating the patient education data, and animating it, replaces the work previously done by the younger doctors, and frees up time for the senior surgeons, enhancing communications with the patients. The cost of the software is billed as medical education expenses to the health insurance provider.

Now, given the successful entry of these apps in the medical marketplace, even major insurance providers are interested in providing these kinds of applications to patients. A recent Accenture report showed 19 of 25 states that received funding for State Health Care Innovation Plans aim to boost so-called “telehealth” investments this year as they launch new initiatives for Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Some 15 states plan to invest in patient portals and “digital tools” to cut costs, while 14 states intend to invest in data aggregation and analytics to bolster population health.

“Tools such as 3D multi-learning sensory imagery that clearly demonstrates anatomy functions, patients are able to easily understand and experience their conditions,” said Berry.

Berry’s father, Robert M. Berry, a fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeon, is a co-founder of the company, based in Salt Lake City. He specializes in surgeries of the cervical and lumbar spine – from the neck to the lower back – and he searched for years for patient education materials that would make his job of communicating with patients easier. Finding no suitable software, he and his son hired designers and software engineers to make it themselves.

Pixar Perfect

The interactive 3D animations not only show the human anatomy, but also detail common medical conditions and surgical procedures. The proprietary 3D animations are all designed and developed using state-of-the art software tools like Maya, zBrush, Photoshop, and After Effects. These are the same tools used by the most prominent animation studios, like Pixar, to make movies. Using the software, along with drawings from anatomy books and feedback with physicians, a custom 3D engine renders the animated models in real-time, said Dr. Berry, in an interview with FoxNews.com.

“Giving the patient the ability to fully interact with the image in an intuitive manner, and using tools that exist in their everyday life, enhances understanding and retention,” he added.

Physicians who have used the software to educate their patients call the images “eye-popping” in discussions with Foxnews.com “This app provides me with the unique ability to show my patients eye-popping illustrations of their conditions, draw on them, and send them by email,” said Dr. Faux.  

Rather than sifting through the worn pages of ancient copies of “Gray’s Anatomy” for patients, doctors find that using the animated 3D applications enables them to provide “efficient, and beautiful I might add, education, and surgical counseling and follow up," said Dr. Justin D. Gull, of ENT Specialists, a practice of head & neck surgeons in Salt Lake City.