India is one of the fastest growing markets for the 3D printing industry. This technology is working wonders for diverse sectors such as automotive, fashion, aerospace, defence among others. Healthcare is the the latest sector immensely benefitting from the adoption of 3D printing.
Hospitals in India are finding various applications for this technology. Be it prosthetics or strategy to treat a complex heart disease, the three dimensional structures always come in handy. As 3D printing is becoming more popular in healthcare, there is a thriving industry catering to this sector.
3D printing or additive manufacturing has been around since 1984. However it gained traction across various sectors only in the last few years due to technological advances and affordability.
One way hospitals are using 3D printing is to get a 3D model of the body part of a patient so that surgeons can study the part they are operating upon before surgery. A CT/MRI scan of the patient is taken designing a 3D model right out of the patient’s anatomy. A special software ensures the preservation of true patient anatomy in the final model without compromising on quality.
At Fortis Mumbai, cardiac surgeons use 3D printed replicas of the hearts of patients to strategize for complex procedures. Swati Garekar, a paediatric cardiologist at the hospital says, “When I give the surgeon the model and say here is the patient’s heart, he is so happy. It is the actual size which he will see in the operation theatre, providing an opportunity to really understand the anatomy of the patient’s heart before opening up the chest”.
Each application utilises a different material. Mahesh Kappanayil, a doctor with Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) says, “There are different kinds of materials we can choose from. With some materials we can even cut open the 3D model like a real heart. Various other materials like plastic and sandstone are also available depending upon what we want to print out when.”
Earlier, doctors, especially cardiologists, had a tough time understanding the complexities of heart and figuring out the best treatment possible. Kappanayil recalls, “Over the past few years, I used to study the MRI’s, the CT scans and build models of heart by my hand using modelling clay, so that I could discuss with my team and understand the three dimensional heart structure.”
However, the introduction of 3D printing in the field of cardiology has not only put an end to the crude way of understanding the anatomy of various hearts, but has also increased the comfort level of the surgeons in dealing with various complexities.
“3D printing allows the selection of the best surgical plans. It also saves the operating time, reduces blood loss, and reduces anaesthesia time and speeds up recovery. This leads to an overall reduction in the cost of the operation,” Firoza Kothari, co-founder and CTO of Anatomiz3D, a supplier of 3D printed models, says, elaborating on the potential of 3D printing in healthcare sector.
Mukesh Doshi, a prosthetics and orthotics specialist and owner of POCL Medical Solutions, has been providing 3D printed prosthetics to his patients for over a year now. According to him 3D printed hands are highly functional and cost effective. “The design is actually so simple that it works on strings which are attached to the wrist therefore giving us the biggest advantage of full movement of hands up to the fingers,” he says, pointing out that they are extremely easy to maintain and affordable too. “A myoelectric hand with all finger movements costs around seven lakh rupees while the 3D printed hand costs only around twenty thousand.”
3D printing is also making imaging technologies like echocardiography redundant. Garekar says that doctors have a hard time in interpreting the echocardiography images to understand the problems in the heart. The 3D printed models have made this task much easier. “We realised the importance of 3D Printing and its ability to answer questions that merely 2D scans could not,” says Kothari.
3D printed models are also used for treating complex fractures and face reconstruction surgeries among others. Think3D, another provider of 3D printing solutions, works with hospitals like MaxCure, Sunshine Hospitals, SRM Hospital and L V Prasad Eye Institute.
The use of 3D printed models have led to higher success rates in surgeries. Kappanayil feels that from the perspective of understanding the anatomy, 3D models have always been100 percent accurate.
Nonetheless, 3D printed models of body parts come with their own challenges as they largely depend on MRI/CT Scan. Therefore it is very important to have high quality scans to generate accurate anatomy for printing. Besides being costly, CT Scan also emits radiation, which could result in an improper model of a 3D printed body part. As the technology is relatively new, the software is very expensive and consequently there are very few players who provide these services across India.
As there is an expense associated with 3D printing hospitals are also finding it difficult to convince patients. Also, at this point in time insurance doesn’t cover 3D printed models. Says Kothari, “Some practitioners who wish to utilize 3D printing are bound by the consent of the patient as the expenses have to be borne by the patient. The patient may or may not understand the importance of 3D printing for his/her case and may refuse the proposal as it is an additional cost.”
In order to create awareness among the medical fraternity AIMS hospital is collecting data on the success rate of surgeries where 3D models are used. Kappanayil believes that by next year he will have enough data to statistically prove the usefulness of 3D printed models.