CONCORD -- To see a person's human heart beating in three dimensions, to watch the blood flow in and out from outside the body, is a marvel of technology that still sometimes astonishes Howard Min.

"To my mind, it's mind-boggling," said Min, a cardiologist at John Muir Medical Center at Concord. "And it's not just pretty pictures. It allows us to see things, understand things and actually do things we would have never imagined possible.

"In some ways, it might put me out of a job someday, but I'll be glad for it," said Min, medical director of the hospital's cardiac catheterization lab. That's "because someday when I'm a heart patient, don't poke me unless you absolutely have to."

John Muir Medical Center in Concord ¿invested $9.8 million in new integrated nuclear medicine and noninvasive cardiology department, which opened in March. It is in a 6,000-square-foot space where the hospital's former emergency department used to be, said Linda Womack, executive director of medical imaging in Concord and Walnut Creek. In addition to hosting updated technology, the new space allowed expansion of the departments' space by one-third and retained the same number of employees, 22, the old separate nuclear medicine and noninvasive cardiology departments had. And the center's design, influenced by staff suggestions, was designed for health care efficiency, said Paula Fuld, a noninvasive cardiology charge nurse.

The center also added two new cutting-edge nuclear medicine "gamma cameras" costing hundreds of thousands dollars each, said Stephen Fuller, clinical coordinator of the nuclear medicine section. They each feature a hybrid camera, which includes single photon emission computed tomography, known as SPECT-CT, and hybrid CT scanning systems that substantially upgrade their previous nuclear medicine machines, both more than 12 years old.

The cameras, often ingested by patients, use small amounts of radioactive materials known as "tracers" to help diagnose and treat a variety of diseases by helping physicians visualize the function of an organ, tissue or bone. They collect data faster, limit radiation exposure and decrease scan time by more than half.

Nuclear medicine has "actually been around since World War II, but it never gets good press," Fuller said. But it has spurred some remarkable medical advances in the diagnoses and treatment of many illnesses -- including bone, liver and thyroid cancer -- by helping physicians get a functional snapshot of the inner workings of the body with remarkable specificity.

Likewise, the field of noninvasive cardiology, which allows doctors to get key information without breaking the skin using echocardiograms and electrocardiograms, can claim many of the most dramatic advancements in cardiology in past 10 to 20 years, Min said.

"This technology has allowed us to do things like fix a valve from inside the body, without having to make a big cut in the skin," Min said. "It's allowed us to fix a valve by using a tiny little clip from the inside, instead of opening up the heart."

Twenty to 30 years ago, if you have needed a valve evaluated, doctors would have to poke you and stick catheters in you, and the information it yielded wasn't as complete, Min said. "Now I can get 98 percent of that information from here and I can save those invasive evaluations for when I'm pretty darn sure I have to fix something."

"I'm a gadget guy, and some of our most amazing toys are here -- but they are toys that help people," he said.

"So there are a lot of people now who don't have to get poked, cut, invaded," he said, "because we now have the technology to see things from the outside that we didn't have before." he said.

Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.