From patient-specific medical models and surgical guides to titanium implants, ready-to-wear prosthetics, and even bioprinted tissues, 3D printing is poised for major impact in the medical arena. There, 3D printing can get personal – truly, deeply, very literally personal.
It’s more than personal though, of course; especially in the Western world, medical applications are above all a business decision. So where are we building value for additive manufacturing in medical applications today and how does that translate into real-world return on investment?
Why 3D Print in the Medical World?
Among the equipment we expect to see in a medical provider’s office or a hospital hallway, EKG machines, defibrillators, and ultrasound wands are established standards. Increasingly, though, hospitals are bringing manufacturing capabilities in-house with dedicated 3D printing labs.
Point-of-care 3D printing not only avoids supply chain woes so prevalent in 2022, but enables medical provider and patient alike with literal hands-on knowledge.
What are Medical Providers 3D printing?
Many medical providers, from the VA to the Mayo Clinic, have been 3D printing for decades now. That groundwork laid by major institutions continues to expand into even smaller point-of-care facilities as 3D printing proves itself a valuable addition to the healthcare toolbox.
Among some of the most-printed parts are medical models and surgical guides. It goes without saying that every body is different, and all the more so considering health concerns. In the case of tumors and other abnormalities, understanding exactly the shape, size, and location of the intrusive growth is vital to removing or otherwise treating it. Medical data obtained from scans can be turned into a three-dimensional model that, when printed, enables care providers and patients to hold internal anatomy in their hands. These models can educate patients on exactly, and quite precisely, what is happening and how their medical team plan to approach it. That team, in turn, can calculate what they need to do and even practice before getting into the operating room. OR time is, in short, expensive; reducing time spent ‘under the knife’ reduces overhead – as well as the time a patient must be anesthetized, in turn reducing aftercare timing. A seemingly-simple medical model can thus have wide-reaching impact.
Surgical guides come into play here as well, as they can be used in tandem with patient-specific models to plan exactly where incisions and approaches will be made – and what to avoid. In complex cases like separating conjoined twins or reconstructing faces with donor tissue, a guide allows for in-the-moment clarity and precision.
Less frequently printed at the point-of-care are metal implants, such as titanium hip or spine devices. With increasing regulatory approvals, such devices are becoming more widespread as an option for medical care providers. 3D printing such designs enables complex structures not possible with other manufacturing methods, creating new efficiency in production of implants. This efficiency balances out generally higher per-unit costs, as superior designs and complexity in structures justify expenditure.
Also gaining momentum are the many procedures enabled via bioprinting, from scaffolds for tissue regeneration to fully transplantable tissues and, eventually, organs. While perhaps not printed on-site, such implant and bioprinting solutions are still highly individualistic, not pigeonholing people into standards of “small, medium, or large” but rather into “size you” for implants that fit and biocompatible bioprints with essentially no chance of rejection.
PoC ROI: Point-of-Care Return on Investment
The return on investment opportunities abound. To roll it into a pleasingly brief acronym, PoC ROI offers a unique value proposition even within the already-unique 3D printing field.
Historical business models focusing on services are evolving into newer, technology-focused strategies. These tend to place the end user – the surgeon – as the customer for hardware or software OEMS, rather than a more B2B approach with a service bureau playing middleman or leaving a medical device salesperson the only point of contact with the manufacturer.
A technology-first strategy enables in-house medical 3D printing and, beyond the lab, the in-house know-how to not just order but implement cutting-edge medical solutions.
Software, 3D printers, materials, post-processing, and services are more frequently being sold directly to teaching hospitals, community hospitals, and private practices. These institutions gain not only direct access to and understanding of additive manufacturing, but an inarguable competitive advantage. In many cases, yes, medical care is competitive; new capital investments may make one institution more desirable for care over another, raising its profile and creating an attractive reputation for advanced care.
Still, difficulties in wholly new reimbursement structures can add to an accounting headache as new workflows, explanations, insurance adjustments, and medical coding struggle to keep up. Each investment into new technology is a multi-layered decision, from overall CEO/CFO and Board of Director sign-offs to department heads, individual surgeons and care providers, and the billing department.
Let’s be very clear on that: medical 3D printing is a major investment. The ROI, though, in terms of cost savings, improved patient care, and competitive advantage, is self-evident and bound only by the constraints of available technology and institutional willingness to invest.
Medical Perspective on 3D Printing Strategies
Medical applications are among the most highly-regulated in 3D printing, for good reason. From FDA approval to medical coding, from rigors of application to appropriate use criteria, from RSNA and ACR impact, from care provider training to patient understanding, medical 3D printing is complex by any measure.
Here is where the experts come into play, often through Metrix/ASME-hosted events like the upcoming AM Medical Summit. Previous events have hosted panels – for example, AM Valuation Strategies – How to Lose Big and Win, Medical AM/3DP Justification Strategies, and Building the Business Case for 3D Printing in Hospitals – in which experts from well-known and highly-trusted medical and regulatory bodies delve into their institutions’ policies and progress in additive manufacturing.
Such perspectives are invaluable in establishing a deeper understanding of the real-world adoption of and applications for medical 3D printing. Those on the front lines of pandemic care, oncology, pediatrics, maxillofacial specialties, orthotics, prosthetics, and other disciplines are turning to advanced manufacturing capabilities to do what healthcare does best: care for people’s health.
Join the discussion at the AM Medical Summit, November 1-3 in Minneapolis.