Not a day goes by when we don’t see a story about how modern technology is changing the face of medicine. 3D technologies in particular are causing fundamental shifts both in what is possible for medicine to achieve and in the general manner in which its practice is approached. The changes made possible by these technologies have come in the form of improved patient experiences, advanced preparation for medical interventions, and superior educational opportunities.
A particularly touching example of these kinds of improvements was the moment in which visually impaired parents Ana Paula Silveira and Alvaro Zermiani were able to experience their baby’s ultrasound as a 3D printed model. Ultrasounds give parents their first look at their baby and it was an experience that the couple had given up as lost, when Dr. Heron Werner, a Brazilian OB/GYN, had a flash of inspiration:
“There was a 3D printing project going on in 2007, where CT (Computed Topography) was being used to image fossils and mummies at the National Museum of Brazil. I thought, ‘Why not use this technology to print fetuses?’ Now I do an ultrasound of the baby, then use the data from the exam to make a file that’s compatible with 3D printers.”
The joy on the parents’ faces is unmistakable as they were able to feel the contours of their baby’s face. It had taken several years of work to perfect the technique of creating 3D printed models from ultrasound images, which are different than CT images in that they are created using sound rather than X-rays, but it was well worth the effort and will more than likely become an increasingly standard practice, particularly for expectant parents with visual impairments.
Individuals are receiving benefits from 3D printing during their medical procedures in other ways as well. The use of 3D printed individual models that accurately represent the specific pathology of a given medical case are being used to prepare both the physicians and the patients. Doctors can now examine and handle a model that lets them become intimately familiar with the needs of a patient prior to having to undertake an invasive procedure, such as was done in the case of a 41-year-old Dubliner who experienced multiple heart anomalies leading to end stage heart failure. Not only did the model help the surgical team prepare, it also reduced the amount of time the patient needed to be undergoing the procedure and helped the patient to more fully understand what was going to take place during the surgery. Reduced surgery time and reduced stress through understanding have both been proven to have positive impacts on surgical outcomes.
There’s not only the human interest side of 3D tech that is helping to improve the provision of healthcare. Additive manufacturing also impacts the supply chain, which is a behind-the-scenes way of creating a better medical experience for everyone. It’s not as glamorous as the moment when a child receives a custom fit prosthetic limb or a patient sees a model of the defect in their heart that is to be addressed, but it is equally important when considering how to best deliver high-quality care. In the GE Healthcare Lab in Uppsala, Sweden, for example, spaces equipped with 3D technologies and provided to teams of engineers and manufacturers have been helping push forward the rate at which parts needed for healthcare products can be created and delivered.
This is particularly useful as a method for providing parts used in developing biopharmaceuticals, the world’s fastest-growing class of medicines. The research and development processes for developing these therapies requires access to specialized equipment, the timeline for production of which can hamper advances that could save lives. Tools and components that can be created using 3D printing reduce investments of money and help push forward necessary research. The benefits of this might not be visible to the average person, but it is a vital part of the background support for advanced medicine.
While healthcare isn’t a game, there are some aspects of it that might be improved by taking a lesson or two from gaming. With the improvement of virtual reality technology, gaming experiences can provide surprisingly realistic simulations. While playing Fallout 4, GE Healthcare designer Ludovic Avot and medical imaging engineer Yannick Le Berre recognized the potential this powerful technology held to provide simulations for the medical community. Whether as preparation for an actual medical intervention or as a teaching tool, the potential for this type of immersive VR environment is enormous. As Ludovic explained:
“We were inspired by the photorealistic rendering techniques of the high-quality games. We tried to exploit the great graphic and interactive potential of the most modern game technologies to show in detail the images obtained by medical tests. This tool can be a new way for radiologists to observe complex clinical images. It allows them to manipulate and interact with the images and offers more extensive zoom, which may prove useful in specific cases, such as the study of the heart of children. The shadowing and the lightning greatly helps to understand the shapes of anatomical structures.”
It’s easy to see why the development of additive manufacturing is being hailed as the fourth industrial revolution. We are just at the beginning of the integration of 3D technologies into the practice of medicine and it has already made a profound impact in nearly every aspect of healthcare. It’s only a matter of time before its use in the ways outlined here becomes sufficiently commonplace as to no longer be newsworthy. The question then is: what’s next?
During this week’s RSNA Annual Meeting in Chicago, 3D printing and other advanced technologie