3D printing is bringing some of the most exciting medical advancements in decades. While it has recently come to the forefront, the technology has actually been around since 1984. As it relates to the medical industry, we are seeing rapid advancements in three main categories: creating models for surgical planning, implantable prosthetics, and biologic tissue.
Many surgeons are utilizing 3D printing to create anatomical models that help them plan and prepare for new, complicated or extremely difficult procedures. Head and neck surgeons and plastic surgeons are among the most common doctors using the process in this way. Duplicating human organs and other body parts allows surgeons to prepare for their procedures based on accurate renderings.
Among the more advanced uses, 3D printing has helped surgeons prepare for separating conjoined twins and aortic aneurysm surgeries. By creating the 3D image of the body parts involved, the surgeon can become more skilled at performing a highly technical procedure and can create a more detailed plan for how the procedure will take place. Many doctors believe that using 3D models to prepare for complex procedures reduces the time a patient is under anesthesia and improves overall results.
More relevant to the workers’ comp industry, we are seeing 3D printing in prosthetics. Printed prosthetics are used for clavicles in particular and allow the physician to copy the design of the non-fractured clavicle and create a prosthetic for the fractured clavicle. It’s an intricate process that allows for a less invasive procedure.
Another growing use for 3D printing is in casting broken appendages. This type of cast allows access to the area (no more itchy, smelly skin) for more normal hygiene. Studies have shown that 3D casting combined with a low-intensity, bone stimulator system reduces healing time by as much as 38 percent and increases the heal rate up to 80 percent in non-union fractures.
3D printing is already decreasing costs and improving outcomes in dentistry and has been used in the field for more than 10 years. The process reduces the time it takes to generate some dental apparatus and can eliminate multiple dental visits. I recently had a personal experience with this phenomenon when I had a crown made with a 3D printer. I was amazed with the simplicity of the process and had to visit the dentist only once to complete the procedure.
Printed skin is another emerging marvel of 3D printing. Skin appears to be quick and easy to produce since it is a layered structure. This procedure is being used in severe burns and traumas and is even being explored by the cosmetics industry for testing products. The idea is to replace animal testing by using 3D skin for safety tests.
According to recent polls, the top nine 3D printing applications in the medical industry are:
1. Hearing aids – 98 percent (over 10 million) are 3D printed today. The technology was adopted in 1998, allowing for 30 hearing aids to be generated in 1 ½ hours.
2. Digital dentistry – With more than 10 years of experience, the dental industry is seeing much success.
3. Body parts and bone – While still considered somewhat experimental, advances are being made in this area.
4. Prosthetics – We are seeing advancement in 3D printed faces and artificial limbs, such as the Robohand project, and casting (vs. plaster).
5. Bionic Ear – A fully formed ear can be generated within 10 weeks.
6. Stem Cells/Artificial Organs – While still experimental, but advances will continue.
7. Blood Vessel Threads
8. New Skin – We are seeing this for battlefield injuries where 30 percent of skin injuries occur, and in other trauma cases such as burns.
9. Printed Organs – Researchers are studying approximately 30 different replacement tissues and organs including bladder, cartilage, trachea, heart healing therapies and micro livers.