Faster way to compute the distance from a point to a surface in 3D

I am trying to compute the shortest distance between a point and a triangle in 3D

distance[point_, {p1_, p2_, p3_}] := Module[{p, s, t, sol},
p = s*p1 + (1 - s)*(t*p2 + (1 - t)*p3);
MinValue[{(point - p).(point - p),
0 <= s <= 1, 0 <= t <= 1}, {s, t}]];

but it seems to be quite slow, is there any way to make it faster?

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As I unfortunately do not know your intended application this may not work for your purposes, however I would suggest to redefine your triangle as a hyperplane and use LeastSquares[]. This is as a built in function much faster compared to the iteration you have designed here. – Sander May 27 '14 at 3:20

Well, you can use the undocumented RegionDistance which does exactly this as follows: (This answer, as written, only works for V9 as noted by Oska, for V10 see update below)

here is a triangle in 3D

region = Polygon[{{0, 0, 0}, {1, 0, 0}, {0, 1, 1}}];

Graphics3D[region]

Now suppose you want to find the shortest distance from the point {1, 1, 1} in 3D to this triangle just do the following:

GraphicsRegionRegionInit[];

Then

RegionDistance[region, {1, 1, 1}]

As a bonus, you can get the exact point on the triangle that is closest to the given point as follows:

RegionNearest[region, {1, 1, 1}]

Visualize it

Graphics3D[{region, Darker@Green, PointSize[0.03], Point[{1, 1, 1}],
Red, PointSize[0.03], Point[{1/3, 2/3, 2/3}]}]

Update for Version 10

The above undocumented functions used in this answer now works out of the box in V10 so no need to load the Region context as I did above. Otherwise everything works as is. Also, now you can use the new Triangle function in place of Polygon above.

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For what reasons all of these Graphics functions are undocumented..? – Öskå May 26 '14 at 9:25
@Öskå, I have no idea :). They seem to be very useful functions from what I can tell. – RunnyKine May 26 '14 at 9:26
@RunnyKine I tested your code and gain 50 times faster speed, thanks so much for your help – tintin May 26 '14 at 10:41
@tintin. Glad I could help. – RunnyKine May 26 '14 at 14:08
@RunnyKine - Where can I find other undocumented Graphics functions? – eldo May 26 '14 at 14:30