Doctors are turning to graphic artists to help patients better understand their illness and course of treatment.
The artists turn medical images from 3D anatomical scans into less formidable forms, suitable for patients.
Trials of the system have shown it can aid understanding and deepen dialogue between patients and their care givers.
The system is also being used as part of a project to raise awareness among diabetics of some of the most serious side-effects of their condition.
“Doctors talk shop, which can be difficult for patients to penetrate,” said John McGhee, a PhD student and 3D computer artist from the University of Dundee, who helped to direct the visualisation project.
The tools and methods used to pass on information about illnesses and cures were as various as the doctors themselves, Mr McGhee said.
“None are that great,” he said.
But, by producing simplified images from detailed MRI scans, for example, patients can get a far better grasp of what is happening inside them, how it came about, and what is being done about it, he said.
The effect of the images has been used in a study of 18 patients suffering from arteriosclerosis, an illness that causes hardening of the arteries which can, over time, lead to heart attacks and stroke.
Computer image of cancer cell
Cancer cells can also be imaged using the technique
Initially, Mr McGhee said, the trial was all about whether the patients – average age 71 – could understand what the images depicted.
But, he said, it proved its effectiveness in other ways too.
“It was about imparting information but more importantly about getting a dialogue going on to help to get the patient discussing what is going on,” he said.
Exposure to the images also helped in subsequent discussions, said Mr McGhee.
“When they talk to health professionals and go armed with better questions and knowledge of their anatomy,” he said.
In a related project, computer graphics derived from medical images are being used in a bid to prompt diabetics to keep an eye on their health.
Computer generated image of an eye
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Run by PhD student Emma Fyfe, also from the University of Dundee, the project has produced a five minute film that explores the effect diabetes has on the retina.
In some cases diabetes can cause abnormalities in the blood vessels serving the retina and make sight deteriorate.
It was important for diabetics to have regular scans to catch the side effects of diabetes at the earliest opportunity, she said.
“If they catch it early they can stop it,” said Ms Fyfe. “But they cannot go backwards; they cannot cure it.”
The film has been shown to the Scottish Diabetes Group and there are plans to show it to other groups around the UK.
The research was shown off at the Siggraph computer graphics convention being held in San Diego, US from 5-9 August.