Orthopaedic surgeons can now get their hands on the bones of patients before they reach the operating table ­– with the help of 3D printing. Using scans of actual patient anatomy, the surgeons are able to print model bones on which to plan and practice their procedures. Being able to see, hold and rotate a precise replica of their patient’s bones gives surgeons a new angle on their cases, providing information that might be invisible on a flat scan.

These models can be shared with patients to give them a deeper understanding of their upcoming surgeries. In the operating room, they serve as a visual aid for the surgeons and their teams. The technology is being used widely across UC San Francisco and affiliated health care organizations. “The total number of orthopaedic surgeons using 3D printing at UCSF is higher than anywhere else in the country,” said Alan Dang, MD, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery.

It’s not just orthopaedic surgeons taking advantage of this technology – pediatric cardiologists, radiologists, maxilofacial surgeons, dentists and prosthetists are among the many incorporating 3D prints in their work. Beyond the operating room, the technology is enriching education and and being studied for how it may improve patient care.

3D printing as a healthcare tool

A 3D model of a skeletal foot sits on the instruction table during an Anatomy 3-D Printing class. (c) Susan Merrell

Printing onsite, at the hospital, renders the 3D printing a helpful tool, rather than an expensive commodity. A single print can be turned around in less than 24 hours and made with sustainable materials, all for less than the cost of a pair of sterile gloves.

Three-dimensional prints help doctors save precious time in the operating room. For example, with a patient’s printed anatomy in their hands, surgeons can test the fit of surgical implants in advance. Besides saving time on the table, this practice can save money by helping doctors visualize whether a patient needs a pricey custom implant, or just a standard size.

Surgeons and their trainees can also use 3D printing to practice procedures. “The trainees can actually perform the case on a replica of the patient’s anatomy before the first incision is made,” said Aenor Sawyer, MD, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery.

As both seasoned surgeons and future doctors make use of the technology, Sawyer and her colleagues are researching if and how its application is improving patient care. They want to know which procedures are rendered safer, cheaper and faster by the use of 3D printing. “We anticipate,” said Sawyer, “that patient-specific 3D printed models will become a standard tool in precision medicine.”

Source: University of California San Francisco