3-D printing could be the next frontier in patient care

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Throughout history there have been certain advancements in medical care that have revolutionized the industry.

Medical imaging is one of those advancements that has grown from a curiosity to an integral part of modern healthcare.

Healthcare providers have come to rely heavily on the myriad of imaging techniques now available to not only aid them in diagnosis, but to plan complex treatments and surgical procedures.

Now there's a new trend in healthcare that takes the medical imaging process a step further and is expected to revolutionize the way physicians and surgeons approach their work.

3-D printing is the next frontier in health care, and its benefits are already being realized here in Orange County.

For several years, the process of 3-D printing has been used in manufacturing to rapidly produce prototype parts and pieces. More recently, doctors have been experimenting with the technique to provide tactile knowledge of the very body parts or organs that they will be operating on or treating. Seeing a picture of an abnormal bone or joint is one thing, holding a replica of the body part you will be working on, in your hand, is another.

Over a year ago, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian launched its 3-D printing program and so far more than 20 patients have benefited.

Although we are at the infancy in discovering the clinical utility of 3-D printing and how it will change healthcare, anecdotally we know it's making a significant impact on patients' lives.

In one case at Hoag, a printed replica of a patient's scapula, or shoulder bone, helped the surgeon practice a complex, two-stage surgery and find a way to efficiently and expertly repair the shoulder joint.

In another, a 3-D printed model saved a patient from a needless operation after the surgeon was able to hold a replica of the man's scapula in his hand and found damage to the bone from a cyst wasn't as extensive as it appeared on the patient's original CT scan.

While the current use in medical 3-D printing skews toward orthopedic cases, the hope for this technology is promising.

Here's how it works: radiologists obtain two-dimensional (2-D) images, typically from a CT scan, and using sophisticated software that information is transformed into a 3-D image, which can be manipulated and viewed on a workstation. From there, the body part or organ is printed using a variety of available 3-D printing techniques and materials.

The result is an exact replica of the patient's bone or organ.

Intense research around the world has focused on this technology, and the possibilities are limitless. Custom printed bone and joint prostheses are already available, and 3-D printing using viable, implantable tissue is on the horizon.

What we are seeing in 3-D printing is exciting and industry-changing, and we have only scratched the surface.

SCOTT WILLIAMS, M.D., is a radiologist at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian. He is the director of the 3-D Imaging Lab and 3-D printing program.