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3D Printing Could Be The (Expensive) Future of Healthcare

3D printing brings financial and practical challenges for hospitals but could actually save time and money, whilst saving patients' lives
3D printing brings financial and practical challenges for hospitals but could actually save time and money, whilst saving patients’ lives
  • New research shows introducing 3D printing to hospitals could bring significant benefits by technologically advancing surgeries
  • The technology can ease both time and financial pressures, improve surgery success rates and boost patient recovery time
  • However, 3D printers are a huge cost. Hospitals must carefully consider whether they are worthwhile investment

Medicine is always evolving and improving, and so is technology. A combination of the two has the ability to revolutionize the future of our healthcare services. Enter, the 3D printer.

Hospitals today are facing several significant issues; staff are overworked and under-resourced, patients endure long waits for surgeries, which can often be further complicated by multiple follow-up appointments. Operations also naturally have the risk of error or unexpected complications. Take, for example, a patient with a tumour in his leg. If surgery to remove the tumour goes wrong or is not thorough enough, the patient is at risk of having his leg amputated. To make the operation as effective as possible, surgeons often remove extra healthy bone around the tumour. Although being safe is the best approach to take, doing so comes at an expense as removing healthy bone results in a longer and more difficult recovery for the patient.

Looking to help hospitals improve their practices, Dr Atanu Chaudhuri, Associate Professor in Technology and Operations Management at Durham University Business School, alongside colleagues at ORT Braude College of Engineering in Israel, and the University of Southern Denmark found that the addition of a 3D printer could be very beneficial in surgical procedures.

The researchers conducted staff interviews and hospital visits to better understand the realities of investing in the technology and how it could be used by surgical teams.

The first advantage Dr Chaudhuri and his team found was that, by introducing 3D printers, surgical teams print out models of an individual patient’s specific surgical needs. For example, a surgeon could gain more exact and detailed information of a patient’s tumour and bone structure, enabling them to plan their best course of action and help reduce the risk of error or unexpected complications occurring during operations. This, the researchers say, could boost both doctor and patient confidence in the procedure.

In addition, 3D technology can also be used to produce patient-specific utensils, allowing surgeries to become much more accurate. In fact, Dr Chaudhuri’s research has shown that surgeries with a duration of four to eight hours were reduced by 1.5 to 2.5 hours when patient-specific instruments were used. Shorter surgery times would allow a greater number of surgeries to happen per day, cutting hospital waiting lists.

Another advantage is that using a 3D printer to produce these models and instruments leads to not only a significant reduction in surgical complications and operation durations but also, as a result, the patient’s recovery would be a much easier and quicker process, minimising the need for follow-ups and subsequent treatments. As so many aspects of surgery can be made to be a perfect fit for the patient, the body can adapt to them quicker and with less complication.

A final advantage of 3D printing, noted by the research, is that it provides real-life training opportunities for surgeons. 3D printing enables them to get to grips with the different steps of complex surgeries. Surgeons can practise their skills on examples of real patient problems, and will be able to gain experience on a much greater variety of problems, enabling them to be better prepared when it comes to the real thing.

So, given all the benefits, how come so few hospitals actually invest in 3D printing?

Dr Chaudhuri and his fellow researchers point out that installing 3D printing technology into hospitals, unsurprisingly, requires a huge financial investment to be made. The NHS, for example, is already operating under significant financial pressure, so to purchase 3D printers across their hospitals would not be at the forefront of their agenda, nor within their budget! Hospitals are also facing other significant challenges; staff shortages, slow recruitment and demand to improve services in other areas, so effort might go towards resolving these issues first. Introducing new machinery would also require training people on how to use it, only adding more expenditure for hospitals as well as demands on staff time and expertise.

However, the researchers have tried to provide a framework to help hospital decision-makers evaluate whether such an investment is worthwhile or not. “The decision to implement 3D printing in hospitals or to engage in service providers will require careful analysis of complexity, demand, lead-time criticality and the hospital’s own objectives”, Dr Chaudhuri says.

It is clear that the 3D printer brings with it some financial and practical challenges. But if, in the long run, this technology could actually save hospitals’ and patients’ money and time whilst improving medical practices then this really could be the future of healthcare.

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