Using 3D printing for patient assessment and treatment

By: Clara Phillips, Biomedical Technologist, West Park Healthcare Centre


Digital technology, including 3D printing, is playing an increasingly significant role in the assessment and treatment of patients at hospitals around the world.

As a result of the technology being established as a convenient and transformative manufacturing process capable of creating solid, complex objects with ease, it demonstrates great advantages for healthcare applications over other processes. Some of these processes include creating implants, drug delivery devices, patient-specific models for surgical practice, and medical prostheses.

Over the past decade, there has been a rise in the use of 3D printing for prosthetic and orthotic (P&O) devices, with a greater number of clinics adopting the technology in their practices; however, there is still widespread hesitation in using 3D printing due to the steep learning curve, uncertainty in clinical outcomes, and cost effectiveness.

At West Park Healthcare Centre, clinicians and technicians have spent the last couple of years investigating 3D printing to bring to light its benefits and barriers for manufacturing P&O devices. In particular, our team is undergoing a case series to study 3D printing for lower-limb prosthetic sockets. The socket is the component of the prosthetic limb that is custom made to fit to the patient's residual limb, and therefore poses a great opportunity to leverage 3D printing technology for its customizability.

While initial investigation has found that 3D printing is cost- and time-effective for creating prosthetic sockets, the process requires the socket to first be designed in a digital environment. This poses many challenges since, traditionally, the socket is designed by an experienced prosthetist using hands-on and artisanal techniques. Since digital methods eliminate this traditional tactile approach, it leads to uncertainty when designing the socket, and prosthetists find there is more trial-and-error needed to obtain a well-fitting socket.

To see more of the group's methods and results, watch this video, which was presented at the GTA Best Practices Virtual Conference on November 27, 2020.

3D printing holds great potential to benefit lower-limb prosthetic socket fabrication. It enables archiving digital limb models for future rehabilitation purposes and can create duplicate or revised models on demand, which are advantages that may be realized in other areas of healthcare as well. Nonetheless, there are still barriers to overcome for the technology to be used as an effective tool for the P&O field. West Park has highlighted these areas of improvement through the case series study shown in the video.

We must be diligent when adopting any new digital technology in an effort to focus on our primary objective, patient outcomes and satisfaction. For that reason, research at West Park is ongoing in an effort to build the evidence-base that is still needed to establish 3D printing as a standard of care.