Could 3D Printing Make Your Next Surgery Safer?

Could 3D Printing Make Your Next Surgery Safer?

Bespoke prosthetics are one of the ways 3-D printing is improving health care.

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Why you should care

Because 3D printing just might save your life. 

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Being a surgeon is stressful at the best of times. Every time America’s surgeons walk into an operating theater, they are taking someone’s life into their hands, literally. The smallest mistake could be fatal, and because every one of us is built a little bit differently, there are often unexpected surprises beneath the surface. When that happens, surgeons have to respond quickly to something they weren’t prepared for. And feeling unprepared in the middle of an operation isn’t a situation anyone would wish for.

According to Jimmie Beacham, chief engineer for advanced manufacturing at GE Healthcare, surprises during surgery can really slow things down.

“Surgeons sometimes have to repeatedly go to a workstation, look at the image on the screen and try to figure out what’s going on,” Beacham explains. In addition to adding hours that a patient has to spend on an operating table, these trips increase the odds of infection and can prolong recovery times.

Fortunately, there could be a solution — an unexpected one — to this dilemma: 3D printing. While the technology has attracted attention for its innovations across industries, from construction to aviation, health care is one of the areas where it’s making a big difference. Already, hospitals around the country are printing 3D models of patients’ organs, using data from ultrasounds to re-create, say, a heart or a lung so that it can be studied in all its unique complexity prior to surgery, allowing doctors to plan how to fix it before even picking up a scalpel.

In an industry where doctors often race the clock to save a patient, speed is as important as accuracy.

But for all the promise of 3D printed organ replicas, there has been one large hurdle: It can take weeks to crunch the data to create the replica, and some patients don’t have weeks to spare. That’s something Beacham wants to fix. He wants these models to be available “at the click of a button,” as he puts it. If he realizes his vision, it will transform surgery as we know it.

In an industry where doctors often race the clock to save a patient, speed is as important as accuracy. If hospitals can 3D print an organ model with one click, it means surgeons can respond faster and use the technology more frequently to treat more patients. Armed with an exact blueprint of the organs they need to operate on, doctors will also be able to refine both their planning and the surgery itself, while potentially simplifying otherwise complicated procedures, like separating conjoined twins. Plus, the more quickly surgery can be performed, the cheaper it can be made. Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham in the U.K. recently announced it was saving three to four hours and 20,000 pounds ($25,000) per surgery by printing replicas of patients’ organs on a new, in-house 3D printer.

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Source GE Reports / GE Healthcare

In his Waukesha, Wisconsin, laboratory, Beacham and his team are figuring out how to quickly translate image files from CT scanners to speed up the printing process. The size of that task shouldn’t be underestimated: GE’s Revolution CT scanner generates and transmits a wad of data equivalent to 6,000 Netflix movies in one second. Beacham’s job is to find a way to convert all that information into a printable 3D image file instantaneously. You can read between the lines when he says he’s “pushing our teams across GE Healthcare” to engineer the solution. It’s a tough ask.

While the wilder possibilities of 3D printing continue to make headlines, health care represents the technology’s more subtle — though no less revolutionary — leaps and bounds. And while some stories have touted a future where organs themselves will be 3D printed, for now it’s mainly custom surgical tools and bespoke prosthetics, which are no less important to the people who rely on them.

As for Beacham, he admits to having another motivator for his need for speed: He’s afraid to be beaten to the punch.

”If we don’t figure it out,” he says bluntly, “someone else will.” The race is on.

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