Challenges Facing 3D Printing in Reconstructive Surgeries

The concept of 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) in medicine is nothing new to physicians. Indeed, ever since computed tomography (CT) scans could be converted into 3-dimensional images in the early ‘80s, companies have sought to create 3D printed models of skulls and other anatomic structures. Surgeons, in particular, have been ordering custom anatomic models for decades now and services have expanded from creating simple skull models to customized patient-specific implants and virtual surgical planning.

A movement is now afoot to bring the factory into the hospital. With the explosion of 3D printing technologies, commercial-grade 3D printers have become more affordable than ever. As a result, doctors and other medical providers now have the potential to control the process of medical modeling themselves, without the need to outsource this work to commercial entities.

There are some clear benefits to bringing these capabilities in-house. The obvious one is the cost. Commercial entities currently charge hospitals thousands of dollars for these services – frequently more than surgeons get paid for the surgery itself. The ability to create these models in the hospital could decrease these costs dramatically, by 50% or more. Speed and convenience are also significantly enhanced. Models can be created at our institution as quickly as within 12 hours versus a minimum of 3-4 days and more typically 2 weeks from commercial sources. Finally, the risk of hospitals also is decreased. By necessity, medical providers must provide PHI (protected health information) to vendors. In the current era where major companies are hacked regularly, decreasing the number of external vendors also optimizes the protection of patient health information.

One would think that with such clear advantages present, hospitals all across the nation would be furiously working to start their own 3D printing labs. In reality, however, few such labs exist across the country and those who have attempted to start such services have frequently encountered surprising resistance to doing so. So why is this? 

The answers are not always clear and may differ at each particular institution, but there are definitely a number of key factors which pop up as recurring themes.