As 3D printing continues to make its way into a variety of real-world applications, one sector is often in the spotlight: medical.
Especially in times of public health concern, medical care is a global priority. Improving healthcare is a seven-plus-billion-person opportunity. But is it realistic to expect newfangled technologies to actually make an impact?
Certain disadvantages are holding back 3D printing in the medical field: let’s take a look at three of the biggest issues.
Disadvantage One: Knowledge
3D printing is a relatively young technology, around for decades, not centuries. Its lack of age-old existence may cause mistrust or, worse, misunderstanding. What’s possible, what’s realistic, how can we make it happen?
How do we find the answers to those questions?
The answer to that last is the same as any other quest for knowledge: turn to the experts. While 3D printing may be pretty new, expertise has grown along with the industry itself. In-depth research is emerging all the time from prestigious universities and research hospitals to examine and prove out realistic use and best-in-class solutions.
Experts in medical 3D printing include both healthcare professionals have been putting the technology to use to help patients and the technicians and operators syncing the technology to point-of-care needs. Service bureaus offer a helpful access point for those new to this area, as they have built up relationships with experts on both sides of this equation in addition to building in-house expertise and offering a variety of options.
Reading well-vetted sources in news and research, as well as accessing service-driven organizations with experience in new technologies, offers an important step in any process. Gaining background and building up familiarity is necessary to bring on something new like 3D printing. Understanding how it can be used today, and how applications may build up in the future, is a critical first step.
Disadvantage Two: Applicability
Once you understand that 3D printing can be used in the medical field, a larger question arises: should it?
Sometimes the answer is no. Increasingly, though, healthcare providers are finding that, yes, there’s a place for 3D printing in their medical toolbox.
But for what? A few of the areas gaining in prominence include:
- Patient-specific anatomical models
- Patient-specific surgical guides
- Surgical tools
- Bioprinted tissues
The underlying theme throughout each of these areas is easy to see: patient-specific.
3D printing can create one-off items built to specific dimensions, matching a patient’s exact anatomical structure. The patient’s care team can then hold an exact replica of, for example, the patient’s heart, examining, understanding, explaining, and even practicing procedures that will work for that individual.
The human mind understands best in three dimensions; a 3D printed model allows for a person to hold and manipulate a physical structure. A doctor can explain to the patient exactly what’s going to happen and why, pointing to problem areas and indicating how intervention will help in a conversation much clearer than one relying on CT scan or X-ray imaging. Surgical teams can use realistic materials to create practice models, effectively rehearsing intricate procedures before entering the operating theatre. This technique has been put to use in complex cases like separating conjoined twins, preparing for face transplants, and practicing heart procedures for high-risk patients.
Surgical guides can be used in the operating room, providing exact guidance to precise measurement for areas of focus. Similar guides are also rising in use in dentistry. Tools used in surgery are also being 3D printed. Each of these usable objects is benefitting from the increase in sterilizable materials that can be 3D printed for one-time or patient-specific use.
3D printing prosthetics is increasing access to these much-needed assistive devices. Because 3D printers don’t require that molds be made, costs are quickly lessened while maintaining the integrity needed to fit an individual perfectly — and safely. In cases where children require prosthetics, their care teams can maintain their records, updating their virtual models to size up and 3D print new prosthetics as the child grows up and requires larger pieces. The ability to 3D print simple prosthetics on even desktop machines has opened up availability through low-income and hard-hit areas, such as in Haiti following the devastating earthquake that left the country with a larger population of amputees. Advanced bionic hands are emerging as well, along with other higher-tech models taking advantage of the latest technologies.
The highest-tech 3D printing out there today is bioprinting, in which living cells make up some of the “ink” used in the 3D printer. While this is a nascent area and fully 3D printed functional organs remain some years in the future, it’s not inconceivable that in our lifetimes we’ll see patients receiving bioprinted organs. Research has been expanding, creating breakthroughs in 3D printed skin, cell scaffolds, livers, even beating hearts and vascular structures. The major disadvantage right now is that most of these remain decades out from common usage — but work is only picking up as progress continues around the world.
Disadvantage Three: Access
Once you determine that 3D printing can be applicable, how do you actually make it happen?
Having figured out that, for example, a desktop SLA-style 3D printer can make the patient-specific heart model you need, how do you actually make that happen? Not everyone has the know-how to convert CT scan data to a 3D printable file, nor the machine and materials on standby ready to bring the design into the physical world.
Software, hardware, and materials all come into play here, along with a skilled operator(s) at each stage. A major advantage of 3D printing in healthcare is the possibility for point-of-care creation, but building up the requisite in-house knowledge and physical capabilities is a multi-layered process rife with training, and vetting and investing in equipment — all before getting that first print started.
Until proper training and facilities are set up — if it even makes sense to have a dedicated in-house operation — access to technology and expertise can come from experienced companies. Offering end-to-end 3D printing manufacturing and fulfillment services to 130 countries, Shapeways offers a base to start the medical 3D printing journey.
Find out more about Shapeways’ medical 3D printing offerings here.