3D printing can improve the quality of patients' lives -- even save the lives of some people lucky enough to take advantage of the new technology.
Healthcare has been slow to adopt electronic records and messaging apps, but it's been quick to embrace 3D printers and their specialized materials. In fact, the 3D printing market for healthcare will generate more than $4 billion by 2018, according to a January 2014 report by Visiongain.
Medical professionals increasingly explore 3D printing because it cuts costs and improves healthcare. "Customized orthopedic implants, for example, perform much better, and their use dramatically reduces surgery times," said Jennifer Taylor, pharmaceutical industry analyst at Visiongain, in an interview."In addition, 3D-printed medical models can reduce surgery times. Surgery costs $100 per minute. As well as resulting in substantial cost-savings, the use of 3D-printed medical implants reduces the risks associated with anesthesia during long surgeries."
Customization is another reason 3D printing fits naturally into modern treatment, said Shahid N. Shah, chair of the HealthImpact Conference and blogger at HealthcareGuy.com, in an interview. "The interest is very high because 3D printing allows personalization and customization to the extreme -- and there's nothing that requires more customization or personalization than devices connected to or replacement parts of any human body," he said.
As the bodies of patients -- especially children -- change, tailoring 3D-printed parts is much simpler, faster, and less expensive than other approaches, said 3D designer Marius Kalytis, CEO of CGTrader, a 3D marketplace for computer graphics and 3D printing. New materials, or "inks," are advancing 3D printing's capabilities. "Printed implants can be made of fenestrate surface, which will let tissue grow with the implant more easily," he said.
The technology is only at its nascent stages. Researchers are exploring where else we can use 3D printing to improve patients' health. Some promising experiments haven't left the lab. 3D bioprinting, where living tissue is printed, won't be commercially available for the next 12 to 18 months, but hospitals will provide 3D printing of skin grafts within the next decade, said Visiongain's Taylor. Adoption in this area has been hindered by technological limitations and prohibitive costs, added Kalytis.
Currently, many hospitals don't have -- and don't need -- 3D printers, and regular general practitioners won't be installing them any day soon, experts said.
"At present, it won't influence the work a 'normal' doctor does -- only for those people working in these specific, very special fields, and only for those who can innovate," said Liang-Hai Sie, a retired general internist, in an interview. "I think it's a good thing to have these efforts concentrated in a few well-equipped facilities so we [can] learn [how] it is to be used, for what situations, long-term side effects, etc. before it is taken further afield."
It's a different story at larger healthcare organizations. IT departments and senior staff must ensure equipment is available and meets legal and safety rules, while making sure those rules don't stifle innovation, said HealthGuy's Shah. Major research hospitals and health systems should "immediately start to purchase 3D printers," he said. "We need to make sure physicians have access to these sophisticated 'personal manufacturing' capabilities provided by 3D printers," he added.
Delve into our slideshow and take a closer look at what 3D printing can do for patients.