3D printing may not have many current uses for the individual consumer, but its impact on the medical profession is hard to overstate. Medical 3D printing is already a genuine phenomenon, and the applications are only going to get more advanced in the coming years. Very soon, it will be possible for medical professionals to construct human tissue in a lab, and then implant it into a patient’s body. Moreover, that is just the beginning!
3D Printing is Altering the Medical Landscape
The most commonly known applications of medical 3D printing include items such as hearing aids, braces, prosthetics, implants and 3D printed models. It may not sound like much that a doctor can print out a hearing aid, Invisalign braces or custom-made prostheses for patients, but it is a massive step for the medical community.
Medical 3D printing has a double impact on the profession. Firstly, it reduces costs to manufacture items that were otherwise very expensive. For instance, getting custom prosthetics only ten years ago was a tremendous challenge, and insanely expensive. Only the very rich or highly insured could afford to go down that route. Others had to contend with basic prosthetics that are not a perfect fit.
Those who experience problems with their feet often had to contend with insoles that were an uncomfortable fit. They would eventually adjust to the insole, but it was an imperfect solution to the problem. Now it is possible to use software to scan a person’s foot, and then use the resulting file to 3D print a custom corrective insole that perfectly matches the patient’s foot.
With 3D printing, doctors can print out custom prosthetics at a fraction of the cost, on-demand, and much faster. The turnaround is no longer months or weeks, but days. The same is true for custom hearing aids and Invisalign braces. Patients benefit because these items are cheaper, and they receive them faster, too.
3D Printing and Surgery
One of the most impressive uses of medical 3D printing came in 2013 when surgeons in Michigan saved a three-year-old boy’s life most ingeniously. The boy was born with his airway tissues far too weak to support his breathing. The surgeons designed and 3D printed a tube that would hold the airway open. They successfully implanted the tube, and the boy survived as a result.
It is one of those stories that proves 3D printing is no gimmick, especially not in the medical profession. Medical 3D printing already saves lives and gives doctors the tools they need to help patients better.
Even if 3D printed parts are not going inside a patient during surgery, it could help with the procedure. Many surgeons speak about the benefit of using 3D printed models for procedure rehearsal. The result is a quicker and more accurate surgery and less traumatic experience for patients.
Researchers are working to see how medical 3D printing could assist patients with the taking of pills. Those with chronic illnesses, and the elderly, often rely on multiple pills throughout the day. Instead of taking these pills at different times of the day, what if patients could take one pill a day? 3D printing may soon make it possible to create polypills, which contain two or three different drugs within them. These polypills would be designed to release certain drugs at specific times, making life easier for patients.
3D printed anatomical structures will soon become commonplace at teaching hospitals around the world. These models can even mimic disease pathologies, further improving the way doctors are taught and tested. The first step is fully functional bone and heart models, with other structures coming in the next few years.