3D Printing in Healthcare

No matter how much precision and care the prosthetics experts at Loma Linda University Medical Center (LLUMC) put into crafting an accurate prosthetic leg for one healthy, young female patient, she never felt quite right in it. It wasn’t until recently, with the aid of a 3D printer, the experts were able to scan her healthy leg, reverse the image, and print an exact model from which to craft the prosthetic. Suddenly, she felt like herself again.

“It’s not just having the measurements exactly right, it’s having it all in the right place,” says Michael Davidson, MPH CPO – Clinical Manager, Department of Orthotics & Prosthetics at LLUMC. “It helps the wholeness of the person who is recovering—regarding your identity and regarding yourself.”

Such is the power of 3D printing in the healthcare industry. So many procedures that were tedious, expensive and imperfect are now seeing improved results—and the full potential of the technology is still to be imagined. It’s this revolutionary impact on the healthcare industry that made the ability to offer 3D printing to their healthcare clients such an exciting moment for business intelligence company Konica Minolta.

Personalized, Efficient Care

It can be expensive for hospitals to buy banks of 3D printers to have on hand. By partnering with industry pioneer 3D Systems, Konica Minolta has been able to help hospitals like LLUMC gain access to this emerging technology through facilitating a lease of the high-tech equipment. This way, hospitals are able to take advantage of the latest advancements in the developing technology. And the potential of the printers doesn’t stop at prosthetics.

For example, when a patient undergoes proton therapy, he or she must be completely rigid, so a “cage” of sorts must be used to hold the body still. “The theory is they can print out a custom cage for each person,” says Davidson. This makes for a more personalized fit for each patient, while also saving time and resources for the provider.

Additionally, down the road, printing new organs and tissues that are perfect matches for each patient could eliminate the need for donations, and ensure every transplant is accepted by the patient’s body.

These more personalized healthcare solutions also come with vastly improved efficiency. In the example of prosthetics, hours of providers’ time and the production costs of creating a hand-measured prosthesis are saved by simply scanning and printing a perfect mirror image of a limb as a guide for the prosthesis. And if it gets damaged, providers can simply print another.

LLUMC is already taking advantage of the efficiencies of 3D printing with its students. Rather than doing stress tests and other learning exercises on expensive, human bones, perfect replicas are printed, eliminating the cost of acquiring new samples when they get damaged.

Medical Thinkers as Creators

One of the greatest effects Davidson expects 3D printing to have on healthcare is the explosion of new innovations when providers realize they have the power to bring their “what-if” ideas to life themselves.

“Today, when we have a good idea, we have to be good at writing about it, or we have to be artists to show people what we mean,” he says. “With 3D printing they can come up with an idea, print it out, and pass it around the conference table, and then people say, ‘Oh, I get it.’”

A lot of bright healthcare practitioners, Davidson says, don’t realize they have the power to create solutions themselves. But as soon as they realize the potential of what a 3D printer could do in their field, lightbulbs turn on and the ideas start to pour out.

“It’s almost like we’re printing ideas,” he says.

Limitless Possibilities

This rush of healthcare ideas being printed into reality is still in its infancy. Davidson expects the new era of 3D printing in healthcare will really break open when medical students are trained to use the technology and consider it when exploring treatment options for their patients.

“I think there will be a new wave of schools and degree programs coming up with ways to create employees to do 3D printing,” he says. “That is the next tipping point.”

The biggest hurdle for 3D printing to achieve its full potential in healthcare? That the capabilities of the technology currently exceed most people’s knowledge of how to bring that potential to life. Once a workforce of healthcare practitioners is trained in 3D printing, however, Davidson expects a revolution. In a hurry, he hopes.

“The new challenge is how do we embrace this into our culture as fast as we can so we can get started on the bazillions of ideas that are just waiting in people’s heads,” he says, “so we can change the world.”

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