3D printing might seem more at home in the world of design and engineering, but this technology is also making tremendous waves in healthcare.
The use of 3D printing across all fields of healthcare is on the rise, offering a level of customisation never before achievable. The technology is enabling everyone from surgeons to scientists to individually tailored treatments for the first time and the potential, in terms of improved outcomes for patients, affordability and efficiency is staggering.
How does it work?
The simplest explanation is that it works just like a regular printer, essentially creating a reproduction from a digital file. The difference is that with 3D printing the end result is a three dimensional, solid object as opposed to an image on a page.
In the 3D printing process the object is created by building up layer after layer of wafer thin material one on top of the other until a solid object is created. Which, in the field of healthcare, might be any number of complex, anatomical and medical structures.
Some printers use powders such as titanium, which are heated and fused together one layer at a time. Others use plastics, ceramics, liquids, biomaterials, even living cells.
3D technology has already been used successfully for prosthetics, dental work and hearing aids, but thinking is developing at such a rapid rate that scientists are already working on ways to print blood vessels, skin and even bones.
Here are just a few examples of how this technology is changing lives.
Standard implants are often require extensive modifications and the cutting away of healthy bone and tissue to implant. Now, 3D printing is being used successfully to make both standard and complex customized prosthetic limbs and surgical implants with fantastic results.
Instead of choosing the best fit from a range of pre-designed prosthetics and cutting away healthy bone to implant, a surgeon can now custom-build an exact fit for the patient, cut at an exact point and radically improve functionality and recovery time.
In an Australian-first operation in July 2015, surgeons successfully implanted a titanium 3D-printed prosthetic jaw in a Melbourne man. Using a model of the patient’s skull, again 3D printed, surgeons were able to build a customised jaw, test it to ensure it could withstand normal forces like biting and chewing and implant it with fantastic results. It’s hoped many more patients will benefit from similar procedures.
Improving the accuracy and efficiency of surgery
Before 3D printing surgeons relied on 2D images and measurements for pre-surgical planning. Now, a 3D printed model of a patient’s heart, for example, enables doctors to design a surgery process specific to each patient, adjusting to the unique size and features of a patient’s own heart before even reaching the operating room.
Creating affordable solutions for the developing world
The affordability of 3D printing is making an impact in the developing world. Inexpensive, customisable prosthetics are already making a difference to patient’s lives, especially in parts of the world ravaged by war. In places where surgical tools and devices can be difficult or expensive to obtain, 3D printing, which is a relatively portable technology, is being used as an effective alternative to traditional manufacturing.
3D printing is already improving the quality of many patients' lives.