Previously, healthcare providers have used digital 3D models during the preoperative planning stage. But by creating a 3D print based on X-rays of the patient’s injury, doctors can test potential solutions physically in order to achieve the best results. Professor Jörg Schilcher discusses the benefits.
Healthcare has undergone an incredible technological revolution in recent years, with 3D printing being one of the most promising innovations. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process that builds three-dimensional objects by joining layer upon layer of a certain material. Healthcare has used 3D printing for a number of different applications, including preoperative planning.
What is preoperative planning?
Preoperative planning encapsulates the stage wherein the physician plans how a surgery will be executed and lays out the expected results. This stage affects the patient, the surgeon, and their team. A good preoperative plan makes things quicker, more efficient and reduces stress during the surgery. At the same time, it lessens costs without cutting corners.
For the patient, all this means more tailored procedures with improved precision and effectiveness. The likelihood of success on the very first surgery is increased, as the potential solutions have already been tested and reviewed beforehand. In other words, preoperative planning means a lessened surgical risk.
Why is preoperative planning important?
“It’s about understanding the problem before we start operating”, explains Jörg Schilcher, professor at the Department of orthopedic surgery at Linköping University Hospital.
“It would never work without planning. You have to prepare yourself, but also your team. We can never be certain that plan A crosses the finish line, so there needs to be a plan B and sometimes C, and we have to be prepared to use them. Thus we have to ensure that all the resources these secondary plans might require are also available before we begin the surgery.”
How can 3D printing be of support before surgery?
“It’s about a problem that’s difficult to understand in two dimensions”, Jörg explains.
There are already a number of tools available to get digital 3D visualizations of a patient’s injury, and in this way conduct preoperative planning. However, Jörg remarks there are unique benefits to having a 3D print.
“Having a physical version of the model instead of a digital one can sound quite minor, but what we’re trying to understand is everything that’s happening below the skin. Medical diagnostic imaging provides us with an image, but it’s still incredibly limited in how well it reflects reality. Primarily, it doesn’t offer the 3D aspect. It’s better when you can hold it in your hand, test the implants we have, and see how a prosthesis will function in the remaining bone stock. The problem becomes so much clearer, and so do the potential solutions.”
Makes it easier to understand the problem
“For me, the most important thing, both for myself and for my team, is to be able to see the problem in front of us and brainstorm ideas. It’s far easier to bring the print to a colleague and say ‘Here’s my problem, how do we solve this?’ At that point we both have plans and we can work together to find the best solution. The three-dimensional model becomes so much more true to life than what we’ve been seeing on the computer thus far. Moreover, it’s simpler than having to learn complex 3D software.”
“One solution is to order specially printed implants for each complex patient case. Then healthcare costs would increase sharply and, moreover, we would have no solution left, in case additional operations were required in the future. By understanding the problem on a deeper level, we can solve it in a simpler way, instead of having to order more complicated implants that make us dependent on other companies for delivery and transportation. We want to be able to solve it locally, simply. Unfortunately, the new legislation surrounding the manufacturing of medical products has meant that the manufacturing of 3D prints needs to take place within hospitals. It will require some work before the healthcare system can provide that service in all hospitals, especially within smaller organizations. As Benjamin Franklin once said: ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’.