Futuristic 3D printing technology is already being widely used in universities and hospitals to improve healthcare. Start-up companies are now working hard to bring it closer to home to doctors in point-of-care settings. One example is the Toronto-based start-up 3D4MD, which recently won a grant from the CMA’s Joule organization. “We make 3D printable medical supplies to save lives, time, and money,” says 3D4MD’s CEO Dr. Julielynn Wong (pictured). “I would love to get more input from GPs about areas where 3D printing would be useful to them and their patients.”
The company has already developed dozens of 3D printed medical designs, based on input provided by patients and doctors, for 3D printable diagnostic, therapeutic, and assistive devices, says Wong. “Now we’re working on the validation of these devices and getting regulatory clearance.”
One example of a 3D4MD design is the ninja star 2-point discriminator device that is used to conduct a diagnostic test, which is part of the standard neurological sensory exam that is administered to assess a patient’s ability to tell two points apart. The best device for this purpose was developed by Canadian plastic surgeon Dr. Susan Mackinnon but it’s is very expensive, so doctors often use an unfurled paper-clip instead to conduct the test – but the results are not always accurate.
“To address this, we made a 3D printable 2-point discriminator that is a lot cheaper than the gold standard device and is more accurate and reliable than the paper clip,” says Wong. “The nice thing about 3D4MD’s ninja star 2-point discriminator is that we can also print out a case personalized with the doctor’s initials to prevent the device from going astray.”
Another example is a custom mallet finger splint, a therapeutic device developed by 3D4MD. “We made this splint on-site during an appointment at a Toronto hand surgery clinic for a patient who had an acute mallet finger injury. We discovered that the material cost of the 3D printed custom mallet splint was less than half the material cost of a hand-made custom thermoplastic mallet splint.”
This new approach to making medical supplies will become a reality very soon, as the costs of 3D printers are falling dramatically, she says.
“The cost for desktop 3D printers ranges from $300 to $3000. The desktop 3D printers 3D4MD uses are very affordable and portable, but they are limited to printing plastic material. There are bigger, more expensive, industrial 3D printers that print metals, ceramics, and composites but they are not typically available to community-based healthcare providers.”
Even if a doctor’s office could not afford to buy a desktop 3D printer, there are other affordable options. 3D printers are increasingly available in public libraries, schools, universities, print shops, and people’s homes, so shared access is becoming easier.
“There is a web platform called 3D Hubs which is like the Craigslist of 3D printers. It allows you to search for 3D printers that are available for you to use.”
Another innovative feature is that 3D4MD’s designs for medical supplies, like most 3D printable objects, would be available for download online.
“In the future, you would search our online catalog and download the file for a 3D printable device. Then you would go to 3D Hubs, put in your postal code, find a 3D printer that is nearby and e-mail the design to be printed. It could be delivered to you or you would just go pick it up when it’s ready. If the printer is in a library or university, you could go there with your file on a USB drive and print it on the spot.”
3D4MD is building a digital library of 3D printable medical solutions based on input from patients and doctors, she says. “It’s like iTunes, but instead of songs, healthcare providers would select and download 3D printable, quality tested files so they can make their own lower cost medical supplies on demand.”
Wong is a frequent keynote speaker, workshop leader, and panelist at medical conferences in an effort to increase awareness of 3D printing technology and its enormous potential to improve healthcare.
“I want to make physicians aware of this technology, of what it can and cannot do. I want to plant a seed in physicians’ minds in terms of the technology’s possibilities. If doctors reach out to us, we are more than happy to collaborate with them to see if 3D printing can save time and money for them and their patients at home or abroad.”
For more information, visit http://www.3d4md.com/