What does it take to bring 3D printing technology in to “mainstream” healthcare?

3D printing has been around for almost 10 years since it went “mainstream” and one of the first thoughts that everyone had were the possible applications in healthcare. Many positive articles including 3D printed heart models, 3D printed prosthetics, 3D printed implants have been published. 

These stories are amazing, and the progress 3D printing has brought to healthcare has been great, yet it is nowhere near the scale that people have envisioned for it. Still, the majority of prosthetics and orthotics are created with traditional methods. Casts are made with the same old plaster of Paris. Same goes for implants. How so? What is the reason why it`s not already become widely used? Are the costs too high? Maybe. But I believe that the key lies in the form of listening to all stakeholders involved in healthcare services. This includes doctors, nurses, clinic management, technicians, insurance representatives, regulator and, of course, the patient. It is common that new innovations more commonly come from people with a technical background (engineers, developers, etc.), however, in healthcare innovators must think about the process and systems as much as about the product or service. Here`s why:

  1. Operating 3D printers, modeling, file preparation – it takes time!

When introducing a 3D printed product or service in a clinic, it becomes clear from a process standpoint that 3D printing is not so easy at all and can become quite complex. Do any clinicians have free time to “play” with their 3D printers? No. Do nurses have free time? Also no. Who does?! Large university hospitals or private hospitals have a separate research and technical departments that can maintain, launch and post-process the 3D prints. But what about the hospitals who do not have such departments? Or local clinics who also would benefit from having access to 3D printing technology? Because of this, companies such as Materialise or services such as Shapeways have come into play, to take part in the time-consuming tasks away and make it more accessible for clinicians to use 3D printed technology.

2. What happens if something goes wrong? Who`s responsible?

When 3D printed products reach patients, such as 3D implants or 3D casts, how does the accountability work? If 3D printing is done by company X, 3D modeling by company Y and 3D scanning by the clinic, how to ensure quality checks? If something should go wrong, it`s highly likely that the blaming game would start. Company Y would say that the scan was faulty, thus the model was not precise. Or Company X would say that the model was bad, that’s why the 3D print, in the end, was not good. And so on. If you have such risk, it`s no wonder the general medical community is not too eager to introduce such technology to their patients. One of the way new technology companies solve this, by providing end-to-end services, such as CastPrint, that provides clinics with all the services (software and hardware) so that there are clear lines of responsibility. 

  3. Who will pay for it?

Traditional medical device manufacturers have long outstanding relationships developed over the years with the industry, thus it is easier to sell several hundred thousand worths of equipment. Unfortunately, 3D printing does have such a history, thus each purchase is carefully evaluated for economical and clinical value. Moreover, of a 3D printed services or product would be re-charged to the patient, would the insurance cover it? One of the ways how to avoid any surprises insurance coverage, is to develop relationships with the insurance companies sooner than later, while still developing your 3D product or services, thus once it’s on the market, insurance would cover the services or product and clinics would be more willing to offer it to their patients.

To summarize, in order to bring 3D printing to the general public and “mainstream” healthcare there is still lots of work to be done. Innovators and startups have to closely work with the medical community and develop their 3D printed products and services taking into consideration existing systems and process in place and how would it change using the new services or product. Even if the 3D printed product is better, but it is significantly more challenging to offer it by clinicians than traditional products, it is highly likely that no one will prescribe it.  However, if the 3D printed product or service would not only be better than traditional methods but also be easily accessible for the clinicians and all other stakeholders, then 3D printing will eventually become in healthcare such as common as an x-ray machine or a statoscope.

About the Author:

Sigvards Krongorns is the co-founder of CastPrint, a 3D printed medical technology company specializing in 3D printed casts for fracture injury treatment. Sigvards has a background in business administration from RISEBA University (Riga, Latvia) and for the past years has been working through CastPrint to bring 3D printed technology to “mainstream” healthcare.

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