Chris Netherton, M.D.

The exciting prospects for 3D printing in healthcare


The speed at which this new technology has had an impact on healthcare, and the ingenuity with which it has been applied, has been truly inspiring.

The technology behind 3D printing has been around since the 1980s. However, it has seen exceptional growth over the last ten years, due to improvements in the quality of the process and thanks to the creativity of the people using it.

We have now arrived at a situation in the healthcare field where 3D printing has a really diverse range of applications.

3D printed plaster casts can now be made to fit the exact contours of the patient’s limb, ensuring a much better fit than would be possible with a conventional cast. Not only is this more comfortable for the patient, but it means that the healing process can take place up to 80% quicker.

80%

3D printed casts can speed up the healing process by up to 80%

3D printing allows the production of highly customised implants and prosthetics, and enables these to be produced much more cost effectively than was previously thought possible.

A company called Layer has used 3D printing technology to develop GO, the world’s first custom-designed wheelchair. The GO wheelchair accurately fits the individual’s body shape, weight and disability to reduce injury and increase comfort, flexibility, and support.

While still at an early stage, a number of companies are working on 3D printed artificial skin, which could be particularly valuable for treating burns patients. Scientists at Cornell University are developing a 3D printed heart valve which would precisely match the dimensions of the valve it replaces. Meanwhile, at Harvard, work is underway on 3D printed artificial blood vessels.

In medications, 3D printing allows pills to be produced in innovative new shapes which alter the release rates of the drugs.

With such a wide range of innovation taking place, some industry experts are now expecting the worldwide market for these applications to exceed $2 billion by the end of the decade.

This is another example of why I find this such an exciting time to be working in the healthcare industry. Advances in technology mean that we are now able to solve medical problems that were previously thought to be impossible.

It is also really rewarding to think that the work we do at Microtest in clinical software systems and the gathering of vital patient data helps to provide a platform for some of the brilliant innovations that are occurring in our industry.

I always take huge inspiration from advances like these, because we are all on the same journey – looking for ways to improve the quality of people’s lives.