Netherlands-based Radboud UMC and Ultimaker are piloting patient education programs using 3D disease models, allowing patients to see and touch what was once invisible.
Imagine being diagnosed with kidney cancer. Unless you’ve gone to medical school, you might have a vague idea of where your kidneys are, and might even know their function. Chances are, however, you do not know what a kidney looks like or how tumors might affect it.
After diagnosis, it is important for patients to understand their disease, to learn about the pros and cons of their different treatment options, and to be aware of the potential medication- or treatment-related side effects. Knowing what to expect can reduce anxiety, and may increase adherence to treatment regimens.
Researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center in the Netherlands are piloting an education platform that includes the option of converting MRI scans into personalized 3D printed models. Not only do the 3D models help physicians visualize a patient’s disease, they can help patients understand the nature of their diseases.
Making Illness More Tangible
At the Radboud REshape and Innovation Center, physicians are beginning to use 3D images of tumors and heart conditions in patient education. The models are created using an Ultimaker 2 3D printer, which was donated by Ultimaker, the Netherlands-based creator of an open-source, 3D modeling and printing platform.
Ultimaker is used internationally by artists, engineers, and increasingly, by scientists and physicians. In addition to using 3D models to educate patients and their families, the models are also used to train healthcare providers, and are emerging as an affordable option for the manufacture of prosthetics.
3D printing gives patients a tangible explanation of what is going on in their bodies. They can hold that diseased kidney in their hands, recognize the tumor size and location, and are better able to discuss their illness with both doctors and their families.
This is all part of Radboud’s focus on participatory and personalized healthcare. Rather than trying to come to terms with a disease through references to scans meant for radiologists, patients have the option of turning those scans into models they can hold in their hands.
The Radboud team hopes that, after reviewing the 3D model with their caregivers, patients will have a better understanding of their disease, and be able to talk about it intelligently.
Patient Education: Theory in Practice
Caregivers often apply the Health Belief Model in their communications with patients. According to the Health Belief Model, adherence is influenced by a patient’s knowledge and attitudes.
In order for patients to change their behaviors (i.e., to stop smoking, lose weight, or begin chemotherapy, etc.), they must believe they could be vulnerable to the disease, that they actually have it, and understand how it might impact the length or quality of their lives.
This is where patient education comes in. Research indicates that patient education can improve doctor-to-patient communication and adherence to treatment regimens.
Traditionally, patient education has relied on written materials and, more recently, on video. Both require a high degree of patient health literacy to be effective.
Health literacy is defined as an individual’s motivation and competence to access, understand, and appraise health information in order to make decisions about their daily lives. Literacy of any kind is a complex combination of socio-economic status, access to and quality of affordable education, and intellectual abilities.
Health literacy is not just the patient’s responsibility. Communication skills should be a significant component of medical education.
The World Health Organization reports that nearly half of European adults have inadequate or problematic health literacy skills. In the Netherlands, where only 29% of adults have sufficient health literacy, the use of 3D models like those at Radboud could lead to significant improvements in outcomes.
Radboud researchers are currently writing summaries of their pilots for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Someday, patients around the world might be able to hold models of their tumors in their hands, and to track their progress through treatment as that tumor shrinks.
Jenn Lonzer has a B.A. in English from Cleveland State University and an M.A. in Health Communication from Johns Hopkins University. Passionate about access to care and social justice issues, Jenn writes on global digital health developments, research, and trends. Follow Jenn on Twitter @jnnprater3.