3D Printing at the US Dept of Veterans Affairs: Boundless Opportunity to Innovate Veterans Healthcare

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At the US Dept of Veterans Affairs (VA), there is a small but growing group of clinicians seeking to incorporate 3D printing and the larger arena of digital design and fabrication into clinical care. As the largest integrated healthcare provider in the US, the VA operates over 150 hospitals and almost 1,000 outpatient clinics in every corner of the US, serving about 9 million Veterans a year. Over the past couple years, the most comprehensive list of digital fabrication resources currently owned by the VA has been compiled and it includes about 20 3D printers and associated design software and 3D scanners. This capacity is augmented by 3D printing service bureaus if the needed technology is not already in-house. Recently a multidisciplinary Digital Fabrication Application Leadership Team was created which includes members from radiology, rehabilitation medicine, prosthetics, biomedical engineering and research. Our main goal is to educate VA staff about the current and potential uses for 3D printing in healthcare to encourage its wider adoption across the VA. More liberal funding of medical devices and allowances for creating custom solutions for Veterans give the VA a unique opportunity to become a national leader in the integration of 3D printing throughout a wide variety of healthcare services.

Here are 2 quick clinical use case examples. This first example comes from my time in the Assistive Technology Program at the McGuire VA hospital in Richmond, VA. I was working with a Veteran with quadriplegia on mounting his Galaxy Note smartphone to his wheelchair in a position that allowed him to fully control the phone. He wanted to be able to change the phone orientation from vertical to horizontal depending on which app he was using. The original design of the mount product we were using involved turning a knob to change the orientation which he could not manage. I designed the red 3D printed add-on to remove the knob and allow the phone to “click” into a vertical position with the integrated spring and be held horizontal by a physical stop.
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The second example comes from Dr. Beth Ripley a radiologist at the Seattle, WA Veterans hospital. She is using 3D printing to enhance the care of Veterans by improving understanding of complex patient anatomy. As medicine continues to advance, there are more and more minimally invasive treatment strategies for diseases such as cancer (renal tumor 3D printed model) and heart failure. This means surgical incisions are smaller, portions of vital organs are increasingly spared and patients recover faster. Medical imaging coupled with 3D printing can play a role in planning for these procedures by allowing physicians the opportunity to see and interact with patient anatomy before a patient goes to the operating room. Our hope is that 3D printing will speed treatment and recovery of Veterans.

About the Author : 

Benjamin Salatin
“As a Clinical Rehabilitation Engineer, I serve as the technology expert on multidisciplinary rehabilitation therapy teams throughout the complete service delivery process for a wide variety of Assistive Technology (AT). I possess a broad range of experience that includes program development, performing clinical studies, creating prototype AT devices, scientific publishing and presenting about AT.
During my 5 yrs at the McGuire Veterans Hospital’s Assistive Technology Center in Richmond, VA I pioneered the use of digital fabrication within the rehab clinic setting to collaboratively design and build custom assistive technology with Veterans and their therapists. I have now become the leading advocate for digital fabrication within the US Dept of Veterans Affairs, seeking to see it incorporated across the entire healthcare spectrum and am currently building a national network of users and equipment across the agency. This network also includes other agency partners such as FDA and Defense Dept healthcare.
I am also very interested in helping to spread expertise about Assistive Technology around the world to regions that are still developing their rehabilitation services. Of particular interest to me are Asia and Africa.”