April 30, 2018
By: Andrew Ericson

3D printing’s brave new world, from implants to new organs

What is the future of 3D printing (3DP) in health? What innovations will determine how 3DP slots into the medical mainstream? Which healthcare industry leaders will reap the benefits–or fall behind?

The market realities of 3DP today, and the opportunities for immediate, substantial growth, are incredible: Medical 3DP is expected to be a $1.2 billion industry by 2020. Gartner estimates 35 percent of surgeries for prosthetics and implants will be performed with 3DP by 2019.

To dispel one stubborn misconception: 3D printing is not just for unique situations where conventional commercial products fall short, such as dental implants. There is a broad range of current use cases for healthcare organizations, including payers, providers and device manufacturers.

Immediate momentum on the practice side lies in three areas:

Casts which allow doctors to create more comfortable, custom-fitted devices, such as what exists already with dental implants.

Highly customized implantables for spines and hips that minimize both material used and the potential for body rejection.

3D modeling allows surgeons to strategize an operation in detail using a precise physical model of the impacted area of a patient’s body before operating. Benefits include greater accuracy and reduced time on the operating table. In another application, 3D modeling of a patient’s heart can identify coronary artery disease without the need for an invasive angiogram.

These innovations will disrupt healthcare, not just in terms of customization, but by enhancing speed and quality while reducing cost.

What I’m even more excited about is the potential for pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers. They stand to see the biggest growth from 3DP, and also face the greatest danger of being left behind:

The potential for 3D-printed drugs will increase drug efficacy, in part by reducing variability.

Replicating human body tissue will open therapeutic horizons when it comes to testing the efficacy of drugs and other treatments.

The advent of 3D-printed human organs heralds the dawn of an era where wait lists for heart or kidney transplants are a relic of the past.

These are all longer-term prospects, but the time to get in is now. Several major device manufacturers are already invested. Others, understandably, are more cautious, intimidated by the sizable cost outlay 3DP entails.

I expect 3D printing to become common clinical practice within the decade. To ensure that your organization can take advantage of what 3DP has to offer, start thinking about training personnel, establishing a smart business model and partnering with innovative start-ups to help spur novel directions in 3DP–and alleviate any investment burden in going it alone.

Cindy Chung also contributed to this post.

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