3D printing in Healthcare: time for improved personalised care?
3D printing (as the press like to call it – I prefer it’s more appropriate name of additive layer manufacturing) has gained considerable ground since the Stereolithography (SLA) process was first patented back in the 1980’s.
As a manufacturing process, it has come a long way in recent years, evolving from a prototyping tool to a low to medium volume production machine. For example, General Electric last year received FAA approval to fly a 3D printed part in their Leap jet engines, Koenigsegg are producing turbo chargers for their sports cars whilst NASA have even sent a printer to space. Not only is it being used in specialised areas, but it is tipped to be a technology that could take mass customisation to the next level as it does not need any tooling to manufacture parts. Google for example, are in the process of developing Project Ara (see here http://www.projectara.com/), an open source modular mobile phone comprised of 3D printed modules. Google’s intention is to produce a printer that can reel off thousands of these modules per day (see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99ohEWeI1zs), allowing individuals to customise their phones with great variety based on their individual preferences and given that module development will be open sourced, it leaves great scope for customisation.
However, 3D printing still has some issues. Materials are not fully qualified for high stress environments such as aerospace or defence, nor are they fully qualified for use within the human body (although some manufacturers have developed materials specifically for medical applications). Bed size is still relatively small so the creation of large parts is limited and the use of multiple materials in a single build has yet to meet its expectations with a lot more research to be done.
That being said, 3D printing is disrupting a lot of industries and is only going to continue doing so, but it is important to make clear that 3D printing will only ever be complimentary to traditional manufacturing, it will never replace it.
The premise of this blog is, what can 3D printing do for the healthcare industry?
An interesting question indeed, and one that can be partially answered now given the great strides the healthcare profession has taken to utilise this technology. For me personally, I think 3D printing offers the chance to provide truly personalised patient care and I think it can be achieved in the three main areas found below.
Personalised models for surgical practice
Doctors now have the capability at their disposal to print models of patients’ organs. This provides the opportunity to practice on an exact replica of the organ prior to surgery, making it much more personal and much more effective. This approach has the potential to lead to improve clinical outcomes given Doctors can practice the procedure in a more realistic setting than they could before.
Not only can Doctors produce personalised models of patients’ organs, but they can used these organs to identify the appropriate tools for the procedure. If the procedure doesn’t suit any of the standardised instruments usually used for surgery, they can produce personalised instruments using the 3D printer. This would allow the surgeon to use the optimal tools for the procedure, rather than making do with something not quite good enough. Again, this option would lead to improved clinical outcomes – which after all is the sole purpose of a hospital, to both improve and save lives.
Personalised medical devices.
This one is an interesting and emerging area and is not confined to one specific area of healthcare. Personalised medical devices can range from prosthetic limbs to customised inner soles to cranium replacements. Although the examples of these cases are not that easy to come by, those that are available are truly fascinating. Robohand produces 3D printed and aluminium CNC customised prosthetics for individuals with damaged limbs who cannot use the standardised prosthetics generally provided by healthcare institutions.
(3D printed custom prosthetic hand produced by Robohand)
In another example, Dutch doctors used a plastic printer to create a customised implant for a 22 year olds skull to match the contours of their skull. Again, removing the need for standardised skull implants that may not follow the natural contours of an individual’s skull.
(FDA approved 3D printed skull implant.)
Whilst these examples seem revolutionary in their own right, I believe, as do many others, that this is only the beginning for personalised healthcare provision via 3D printing technology. Based on the ground it has already made, it is set to have a substantial impact on the healthcare industry. Whilst the majority of examples seem to have come in private healthcare institutions that have the capital to invest in such technologies, the NHS has an excellent opportunity to adopt 3D printing technology. Although not entirely, the NHS is a standardised institution across the United Kingdom and adoption of the technology in a coordinated fashion would allow them to both improve their patient centric healthcare provision and improve the efficiency of their service in relation to both time and cost.
I believe it would be a great time for the NHS to launch a feasibility study into the use of 3D printing technology within their institution to see where it can save them both time and cost, whilst providing truly personalised healthcare provision.