3D Printing in Healthcare: Benefits & Future Applications

3D printing technologies are making major strides in the medical community

Three-dimensional (3D) printing technologies in healthcare hold the promise of improved patient care, reduced surgical times and developing medical devices. Building on current applications, the future is full of possibilities.

“With 3D printing, there has always been a lot of opportunity in healthcare and different ways we can use this,” said Luanne Hutchinson, executive director of strategic healthcare initiatives at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “It starts to take off and get seeded in different things, and then it just explodes.”

Early 3D printing in healthcare focused on surgical planning and production of implants, according to a 2021 article in AAPS PharmSciTech. But now, 3D printing is being used in several settings and by different medical specialties.

What is 3D printing in healthcare?

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, “is a process that creates a three-dimensional object by building successive layers of raw material. Each new layer is attached to the previous one until the object is complete,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health regulates medical devices produced on 3D printers.

“As long as you can get a 3D point cloud, from a scanner or an MRI, it can be turned into surfaces,” said Daniel Barousse, CEO and co-founder of Splice Engineering in Gainesville, Florida, which manufacturers print heads for 3D printers. “Those processes can be modeled with computer-aided design. … You import the point cloud data into the CAD software and then shape it to what you need to print the file.”

That file becomes a solid, which is put into a slicer. The printer deposits a layer down or up, depending on the printer, to create a three-dimensional object, Barousse explained. 

While the technology began in in the 1980s, it has recently become more popular. 3D printers can create renderings of imaging studies, which provide value to surgeons planning a complex case or to practice procedures or train students, reports a systematic literature review in BioMedical Engineering Online

Orlando Health in Florida has 13 3D printers, including in the Bioskills Lab at the new Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute. Michael Schmidt, vice president of strategic innovations at the health system, reported the hospitals use the 3D printers for surgical planning and simulator development. Some examples include fetal surgery models, heart models and simulator models for fellowship programs, continuing education and patient education. At the orthopedic institute, people will also use it for medical device innovation.

3D printing technologies in healthcare also are useful in developing prototype devices, implants, prostheses and, potentially, medications. In addition to medicine, 3D printing is used in dentistry, such as making bridge models, clear aligners or dentures.

Some healthcare systems have embraced 3D printing, establishing labs, including the Helen and Will Webster Foundation 3D Innovations Lab at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, California.

Medical applications of 3D printing technologies

3D printing in healthcare has many applications, with more expected in the near future.

At Rady Children’s, cardiac surgeons print physical models of patient’s hearts to plan cardiac surgeries. The models also help in explaining the surgery to patients and families.

The surgeon “can take that model and see where the [intraoperative] challenges might be,” Hutchinson said. “Better off to find things in a 3D-printed structure than to have a patient open in front of you and discover that.”

Orthopedic surgeons at the hospital also use 3D printing to plan surgeries. Those clinicians have found that it reduces surgical time and fluoroscopy use.

3D printing technologies in healthcare also include creating molds, used to make prosthetics, including those for ears and arms, and spacers for growing children. Barousse reported that some companies are using 3D printing to test fits for prosthetics.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 3D Imaging and Printing Lab at health system Geisinger of Danville, Pennsylvania, produced a door handle tool and face shields for employees. Likewise, Rady Children’s 3D lab produced nasopharyngeal swabs, face shields, ear savers and ventilator splitters during the pandemic.

“There was a whole movement of people 3D printing face shields and masks or mask holders,” Barousse said. “Our entire space at the time was converted into a 3D-print farm.”

The government classified Splice Engineering as an essential business and the face shields were able to be produced under an emergency use authorization. It supplied Florida healthcare facilities.

In another emergency application, during the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that country 3D printed tourniquets at a low cost to help save people’s lives.

Benefits of 3D printing in healthcare

Among the benefits of 3D printing in healthcare is reduced operating room time when surgeons have 3D-printed anatomical models and surgical guides to understand that patient’s anatomy before entering the operating room. Those shorter OR times can save hospitals money and reduce the risk of complications for the patient.

Some studies have shown improved medical outcomes with 3D printing, reports an article in BioMedical Engineering Online. Additionally, the 3D models help patients understand their conditions and the recommended surgical procedure.

Barousse envisions a day when joint replacement and spine devices will be 3D printed and sized and designed for each patient individually, leading to better outcomes and reducing the need for revision surgery.

“3D printing is the only technology that is going to allow us to build structures that will mimic the properties of the human frame, and I am excited about that,” Barousse said.

The 3D printers also may be used to design medical devices and surgical instruments and, possibly, pharmaceuticals.

Current roadblocks for 3D printing in healthcare

Healthcare has a long way to go for complete adoption of this technology. Hutchinson reported that there is not a lot of 3D-printing capacity in hospitals.

The expense has long been a concern about investing in 3D printing, including the software, hardware and materials to print. However, some key patents have expired, and costs have come down, Barousse said. He pointed out that Amazon currently has some 3D printers for personal use for about $400, but those will not produce medical-quality devices. During the COVID-19 pandemic, sales of 3D printers increased dramatically. 

Different materials can be used to print in 3D. Printing in multiple colors and additional detail will increase expenditures, Hutchinson said.

The potential of 3D printing in medicine

As has occurred in other industries, 3D printing in healthcare has benefits for the clinician, the organization and, most importantly, the patient.

“Matching the innovation in technology and medicine is really, really cool,” Hutchinson said.

However, insurance does not always pay for the 3D models, and that is something multiple people are advocating for, Barousse said.

Hutchinson recommended that physicians who want to work with the technology and experience the benefits of 3D printing reach out to colleagues and ask about collaborating or learning more about the technology. 

“I am excited about the potential of this technology for improving the human condition, long term,” Barousse said. “It is an exciting place to be.”

Physicians, surgeons and advanced practitioners can also connect with a Merritt Hawkins recruiter to find the ideal location and workplace setting where providers are using these amazing technologies. 

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