The future of 3D printing in healthcare
3D printing has shown promising results in supporting surgery, but more research is needed to understand the technology’s full potential for the healthcare market, as Giacomo Lee finds out.
3D printing will be a $32bn industry by 2025, rising to over $60bn by 2030, according to estimates from GlobalData. The CAGR between 2018 and 2025 will be 16%, with software growing slightly faster than hardware, materials and services.
How much healthcare will contribute to this growth remains to be seen. In 2018, healthcare represented only 10% of online printing demand. In contrast, the industrial and electrical sectors represented approximately 50%.
But changing trends may see a necessity for more 3D printing in hospitals and places of care. As a new GlobalData report on 3D printing in healthcare finds, the growing old-age population has driven the demand for donor organs, while regenerative medicine using bioprinted, patient-derived stem cells allows for personalised treatment of certain diseases.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that the pandemic has played its part in galvanising the technology’s use. The 3D printing community, from major manufacturers to start-ups and individuals, has responded to the Covid-19 crisis by pledging to support the production of vital medical equipment such as ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospitals tackling the pandemic.
Cost vs benefit: the medical view
A recent study into the costs versus benefits of introducing 3D printing technology into hospitals has shown that the tech can aid complicated surgeries.
The June study, undertaken by 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, assessed the effectiveness of 3D printing technologies used in hospitals. Results show 3D printing to be a key tool in easing both time and financial pressures for hospitals.
“Surgeries with durations of 4-8 hours can be shortened by 1.5-2.5 hours if patient specific instruments are used and 25-30 minutes shorter if only an anatomical model is used to plan the surgery,” Dr Chaudhuri tells Verdict.
“Patient recovery times are also shorter (e.g. a patient is able to walk 1-2 days after surgery compared to 3-4 days before). Moreover, the patient will avoid any post-surgical complications and hence will not need to visit hospital or undergo other kinds of treatment.”
Benefits can far outweigh costs both for hospitals as well as for patients.
Chaudhuri doesn’t specifically compare success rates, noting that even earlier surgeries had been successful but could have led to post-surgical complications and longer recover time. “But, there are certain surgeries which were not attempted before, especially for smaller children, which could now be conducted with much more confidence,” he reveals.
Whilst the benefits are compelling, Chaudhuri and his fellow researchers advise caution. They acknowledge that 3D printing is a significant financial investment for hospitals to make, particularly those run by the British NHS already operating under heavy financial pressures, especially in pandemic times.
“Benefits can far outweigh costs both for hospitals as well as for patients,” says Chaudhuri. “But we must know where to apply it and how to quantify the benefits.”
He also believes 3D printing should be a collaboration between surgeons and engineers, with no one party having an advantage over another through clinical or technical knowledge.
“(One) myth is that surgeons should not be involved in design or 3D printing,” Chaudhuri says.” But surgeons who are learning how to do segmentation, how to design a surgical guide, will be ahead of others. Eventually many surgeons will like to learn about 3D printing and it will get integrated with the medical curriculum.
“The other myth is that engineers from service providers do not understand clinical requirements well. This may be initially true but many service providers have learnt the clinical aspects by working with many surgeons and hence when they talk to a hospital, which has not applied the technology before, they will already provide valuable experience and guidance, particularly on what is possible and what is not.”
The future of 3D printing in healthcare
Clinical and operational outcomes of using 3D printing in surgery have been demonstrated. But Chaudhuri sees a need for systematic studies for which type of surgeries and for which patient characteristics the impacts are highest.
“For public health systems, such cost-benefits analysis is critical,” he adds. “For private healthcare, there should be value-for-money for patients.”
Chaudhuri says use of anatomical models will become standard for surgery. 3D printed surgical guides and implants, meanwhile, will be used where the benefits are highest followed by advanced 3D printed models for surgical simulations for more complex surgeries.
“3D bio printing, that is printing of organs, is further out in the horizon, but development is happening at a rapid pace. Use of virtual and augmented reality in combination with 3D printing has high potential for complex surgeries, which deal with challenges of high visual-spatial complexity and extensive anatomic variation.”
The physician also predicts a strong demand for tailor-made medical implants and surgical instruments to individual patients.
“One of the leading applications of 3D printing in surgeries are in orthopaedics and orthopaedic oncology, especially in complex restructuring operations, followed by cranio-maxillofacial, neurosurgeries and cardiology,” he says. “But as I said before, more studies are needed across specialties and for different types of patients.”
Main image: A close-up of a 3D printed ear at the Institute of Life Sciences at Swansea University. Credit: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images