From prosthetics to artificial organs and surgery guides, 3D printing is set to revolutionize healthcare
What’s the greatest hurdle to medical innovation? It’s not lack of hard-working researchers or a dearth of intelligence, but the simple and banal truth of cost. Money buys better devices, smaller devices, devices that are crammed with incredibly advanced circuitry.
But what if that doesn’t have to be true? What if there exists a piece of expensive technology that’s sole purpose is to make other tech cheaper and more readily available?
The promise of 3D printing is lofty, and not just for healthcare. The democratization of industrial production has millions of applications and potentially Earth-shattering effects on every process in society.
However, when it comes to 3D printing and the healthcare industry, this kind of technology can improve and even save lives on a massive scale. And, perhaps the best part, is that while 3D printing machines have a considerable initial cost, they can interface directly with existing medical computers, and the ROI is through the roof, both in terms of dollars and in patients served.
Prosthetics: The Cost of an Arm and a Leg
Medical prosthetics are some of the most life-changing devices in medicine. While the clock can never be turned back, devices like prosthetic limbs can give autonomy, health, and happiness back to many patients. Of course, they do so at often astronomical costs. A standard advanced prosthetic may cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 or even higher, for instance.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. One of the most exciting fields of application for medical 3D printing is in crafting brilliantly designed, affordable prosthetics at a fraction of a splinter of the current cost. Even better, 3D printed prosthetics are also generally less of a hassle. Instead of having to undergo the mold, cast, vacuum, fit, adjust, cycle ad nauseam, the patient is simply scanned with a 3D scanner and fitted with a perfect custom appliance.
Places like the NIH 3D Print Exchange host a number of different prosthetic models. Models like the “Cyborg Beast” operate as fully-functioning hands, while more specialty models can be used for custom purposes.
The low cost of 3D-printed medical prosthetics allows for more custom, single-function limbs and aids that might otherwise have been prohibitively expensive. A standard 3D printed hand may only cost the patient a few hundred dollars, and more specialized single-purpose limbs could be even cheaper. A prosthetic 3D printed violin bow holder can help a budding musician with what would have been a career-crippling disability, and come with a price tag that anyone can afford.
The low cost and high speed of 3D printing have also allowed for more varied aesthetic designs, letting patients find the perfect appliance for their own personal journey. A hospital with a 3D printing lab and a solid medical grade PC can churn these kinds of prosthetics out at truly amazing speeds.
Printing Tissue and Organs
Perhaps the greatest limiter on the pie-in-the-sky dream of functional immortality for human beings is the simple fact that our organs have an expiration date.
Tissue decays, organs fail. But the nascent field of 3D bioprinting offers a transhuman alternative to the insults of aging and injury – what if a machine could simply grow you a new replacement body part from compatible tissue? And, what if it could be done on a large scale to help everyone?
It may be too late to dismiss this kind of technology as a pipe dream. 3D-printed liver tissues are already being tested, as are 3D-printed bladders, blood vessels, kidneys, and even hearts.
This kind of technology works by using tissue from the patient to seed the “bio-ink,” ensuring that the organ will be compatible with the patient right from the beginning. An array of syringes are then fitted onto a special 3D printer, which is connected to a medical panel PC or other desktop or medical PC. The computer parses the plans and controls the printer. One of the syringes is full of organically-compatible plastic, which creates a kind of structure to scaffold the printing of the biomass. The other syringes then dispense bio-inks, proteins, and any other organic material required to print a fully living organ.
Imagine waiting hours for a 3D printer to finish assembling a new organ instead of languishing for years on the transplant list in hopes that a perfectly compatible donor will appear.
3D Models and Guides for Surgery Prep
3D printing can also make surgery safer by aiding doctors before they even pick up a scalpel.
A patient’s limb, organ, or entire body can be scanned as needed using standard imaging methods. Then, hospital medical computers can take the scan and synthesize a digital 3D blueprint for the part in question – say a heart, in the case of this procedure in the United Arab Emirates. They used the 3D printed heart to take a closer, hands-on look at the patient’s heart before surgery. This included both an exploding virtual diagram, a life-sized model, and an exact replica of the patient’s heart blown up to 3 times its normal size.
This not only helped them understand and visualize this particular patient’s exact heart but also to plan and simulate the surgery long before the patient hit the table.
The life-size model is also used for one-to-one measurements. Need to test out if a stent will fit? Measure the distance for a new valve? This lifesize model is a perfect stand-in, giving the surgical team unprecedented accuracy.
Inexpensive and Easy-to-Fit Sensory Aid Devices
Eyeglasses and hearing aids are expensive. According to Consumer Reports, the average hearing aid comes with a $2,700 price tag, with 16% of users paying over $5000 for the same privilege. They also can’t be simply ignored due to budgetary restraints: people have to see and hear to go about their daily lives with some form of autonomy.
Every hearing aid has to be individually fitted to the recipient, which eats up a good deal of the budget and the time associated with the entire operation. It’s often a trial-and-error process as well, leaving the patient to deal with uncomfortable, ill-fitting hearing aids for weeks or months at a time. By contrast, a 3D-printed hearing aid can be scanned into a medical computer, printed, and fit perfectly into the patient’s ear in less than a day.
There’s even been some movement into the field of 3D printed eyeglasses, with all of the same inherent benefits of printing hearing aids. Patients get a better fit, at a lower cost, and with more design options.
Everyone Deserves the Latest Advances
Medical technology is only as transformative to society as it is available, and 3D printing promises to democratize the creation and implementation of medical marvels like implants, sensory aids, replacement organs, and more. Contact Cybernet today to learn about how to implement cutting edge technology and medical computers in any healthcare facility.