With the future of medicine focused on lowering costs and increasing the speed of care delivery, 3D printing is delivering high-tech, low-cost solutions that are saving and improving patients’ lives in unprecedented ways. 3D printing is part of an innovative process called additive manufacturing that layers composite material, layer after layer, until a fully formed object is completed.
And while the goal of printing whole organs for transplants is likely still decades away, 3D printing technology has already become a high-tech fixture in medical care – with the potential for more uses and applications well into the future.
- 3D Printing Labs in Hospitals. One of the more immediate and emerging trends is the use of 3D printing within hospitals. While there were only a few hospital doing 3D printing directly in the hospital only a few years ago, now hospitals across the U.S. and around the globe are establishing 3D printing labs within their complexes to enable healthcare professionals to use the process in a normal day’s work. Currently, most hospitals use the technology to print patient-specific models of organs prior to surgery so that surgeons can study and practice on a customized 3D model before surgery. The hope is that this practice will lead to reduced mortality and morbidity rates, although a clinical trial is underway to better understand the impact of organ models on surgical outcomes.
- Low-Cost Prosthetics. 3D printers are being used to produce patient-specific, low-cost prosthetics, especially for people in developing countries who might have had no hope of receiving these devices in the past. The use of 3D prosthetics is being spurred by non-profit groups like Range of Motion Project (ROMP) and Not Impossible, who use this revolutionary technology to build low-cost, high-quality prosthetic limbs and orthotic braces for patients who would otherwise never receive them.
- Customized Medical Implants. Thousands of 3D replacements for bony body parts – knees, hips, ankles, vertebrae, and skulls – are implanted every year, and the technology holds more promise for the future with 3D printed patient-specific parts. While not generally approved by the Food & Drug Administration, some have taken place under the FDA’s emergency clearance process. A widely publicized example was a tracheal splint developed at the University of Michigan for an infant born with a congenitally defective trachea that collapsed, even after conventional treatment. The bioengineering-surgical team used a CT scan to 3D print a replica of the infant’s anatomy, creating a splint to wrap around the weakened trachea. The tissue from the infant’s bronchus was sewn inside the splint, and the device was made of a material similar to absorbable sutures so that as the child’s trachea repaired itself it would gradually be absorbed.
- Customized Protective Devices and Aids. 3D printing technology is allowing the high-quality, rapid and low-cost production of a range of medical devices and aids – from dental implants and hearing aids to prescription eyeglasses and headgear – that fit more precisely and work better for patients.