3D Printing Advances in Healthcare

There’s no denying that the future is now when it comes to three-dimensional (3D) printing. Once a faraway vision on par with flying cars and daily trips to outer space, 3D printing is well on its way to becoming a common sight – especially in healthcare.

Surprisingly, 3D printing is not as modern as many people think. In fact, the technique dates back to 1984, when Charles Hull invented stereolithography, a printing process that allows users to create 3D objects using digital data.1 Today, the process is known simply as “3D printing,” as the layered printing process allows users to transform any virtual blueprint into a 3D model.

In the 22 years since its inception, 3D printing has become increasingly mainstream. While 3D printers may not yet be as common as inkjet or laser, they’re certainly not as rare as they used to be. In fact, almost anyone can now own a 3D printer, as they can be purchased for as little as $150. With a 3D printer, a computer and filament, the world is your oyster: You can choose from thousands of free designs online or create your own, and truly bring your imagination to life.

However, 3D printing is capable of far more than creating small trinkets. It has been used to create car parts, architectural models, aircraft parts and more.2 Perhaps one of the primary supporters of 3D printing, though, is the healthcare industry.

Perks of Precision and Price

The precision and low cost of 3D printing can truly change the game when it comes to healthcare. While other industries are still trying to figure out exactly how 3D printing can be of use to them, healthcare has already taken advantage of this remarkable technology.

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A Turkish student named Deniz Karasahin created a 3D cast that can be custom made to fit each patient and maintains a skeletal design that would allow ultrasonic drivers to be placed directly onto the patient’s skin, potentially reducing healing time by up to 38%.3 Aprecia Pharmaceuticals created the first FDA-approved 3D-printed prescription pill, which allows pharmacists to ensure that every dose of the seizure medication will be equal and gives doctors the option to customize dosages for individual patients.4 Researchers from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center even were successful in implanting living, functional 3D-printed human tissue into animals.5

3D Printing for Surgical Planning

3D printing has made major changes for several children’s hospitals, including Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Arizona. The hospital’s Cardiac 3D Print Lab prints accurate representations of hearts for patients with heart defects, enabling the doctors to literally hold their patients’ hearts in their hands before even starting surgery.6

With young, small patients, precision becomes even more crucial, and with the accuracy of 3D printing, ensuring that precision is much more realistic. “The heart of a baby who has heart problems is a lot different than in an adult who has heart problems,” explained Stephen Pophal, MD, FACC, division chief of cardiology at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “An adult will have a normal structure of a heart but then the muscle gets weak or injured, whereas a baby has some abnormalities in the pumps, the walls of the heart or the blood vessels that come off of the heart, and each defect is unique. With 3D printing, we can hold these models in our hands to see what they’re like in exact replicas. If you can see it better, you can fix it better.”

Encouraging Patient-Friendly Communication

In addition to helping with surgical planning, these 3D models enhance patients’ understanding of their heart defects. “They become advocates for fixing that kind of heart defect at a very early age,” said Pophal. “One of our patients calls it a ‘heart effect’ because she can’t say ‘defect,’ and she understands more about hyperplastic right ventricle than most college students. She’s four or five years old.”

Further, these models have enabled the hospital to better communicate with patients. “We had one family who did not speak English, but we were able to use a model to communicate exactly what surgery would happen,” shared Justin Ryan, PhD, research scientist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “The family felt like they had more control over the process.”

While the hospital’s Heart Center is utilizing these models more frequently as time progresses, much like 3D printing technology itself they aren’t necessarily a recent development. According to Ryan, the research on these 3D prints began roughly seven years ago at Arizona State University. Initially, the hospital would print its models at the university; however, three years ago, Phoenix Children’s Hospital received a grant that enabled it to acquire its own printer. Now, Phoenix Children’s Hospital works with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., to conduct a multi-system trial that will help professionals understand statistically how 3D printing is affecting the healthcare system.

Although 3D printing is becoming increasingly common in healthcare, it’s not yet easy for all organizations to implement. “The cost of these models is a big challenge,” Ryan admitted. “We cannot get reimbursed for the models at our institution, and we don’t do private pay situations, so we have to go for grants or rely on donations. We have a strong perception that these models reduce surgical time, catheter time, bypass time and ultimately, morbidity and mortality, but to get these models reimbursed and create the economic environment where these models are viable, we need evidence that supports it.”

Changing Healthcare

There is still room for 3D printing to make an even bigger impact on healthcare, and it likely will. Most experts agree that it’s only a matter of time until healthcare organizations are able to print whole, fully functional human organs that can be safely transplanted into patients.5 When the industry reaches this point, it will truly change the way that hospitals work: Waiting lists for organ donations will be able to be eliminated altogether, and many currently life-threatening illnesses will be a lot less daunting for patients and healthcare professionals alike.

Although the industry is not yet able to create these transplantable organs, in the not-so-distant future, 3D printed organs could be part of daily conversation in healthcare. Within a matter of time, 3D printing may very well become the new norm in the healthcare industry – and save countless lives along the way.

Sarah Sutherland is a staff writer at ADVANCE. Contact: ssutherland@advanceweb.com.

1. Daly, J. Infographic: the history of 3D printing. State Tech Magazine. 2013.
2. 3D Printing Industry. 3D printing applications.
3. Buhr, S. A 3D printed cast that can heal your bones 40-80% faster. Tech Crunch. 2014.
4. Basulto, D. Why it matters that the FDA just approved the first 3D-printed drug. The Washington Post. 2015.
5. Scott, C. Wake Forest researchers successfully implant living, functional 3D printed human tissue into animals. 3D Print. 2016.
6. Phoenix Children’s Heart Center. Cardiac 3D Print Lab.

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