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3D printing technology can ease hospital pressures

(27 May 2021)

A study looking at the costs versus benefits of introducing 3D printing technology into hospitals has shown that such innovations can aid complicated surgeries, as well as be a key tool in easing both time and financial pressures.

The research, by Dr Atanu Chaudhuri, Associate Professor in Technology and Operations Management at the Business School, alongside colleagues at ORT Braude College of Engineering in Israel, and the University of Southern Denmark, assessed the effectiveness of 3D printing technologies used in hospitals.

Interviews, workshops and field visits were carried out to better understand the motivations for investing in the technologies, how they were being used by surgeons and professionals on the surgical teams, and the results of their implementation.

Costs versus benefits

The study aimed to address two key concerns from the healthcare sector when considering whether to commit to the significant financial investment:

  1. Understand how custom-designed, 3D printed anatomical models, implants and surgical instruments could impact upon hospital flow times, surgical outcome variability and any other clinical outcomes that may result from its use.
  2. Understand how hospitals make decisions regarding investment in 3D printing for surgical purposes, and how the research might help clarify that process.”

Findings: how 3D printing could help alleviate the strains of healthcare systems

  1. Boosting surgery success rates: the study found that 3D printing makes it possible for surgical teams to print 3D models based on an individual patient’s surgical needs, providing more detailed and exact information to plan and practice the surgery, minimising the risk of error or unexpected complications.

    The study showed that 3D printed anatomical models were also useful when communicating the surgery details with the patient, helping to increase their confidence in the procedure.

  2. Speeding up patient recovery time: hospitals which provided surgical teams with the ability to produce 3D printed anatomical models, surgical tools and implants saw a significant reduction in post-surgery complications, recovery times and the need for subsequent appointments.

    Dr Chaudhuri advised this is because 3D printed implants can be designed to be a perfect fit for each patient, helping the body to adopt them quicker and without complication. As a result, costs are reduced for both the hospital and patient.

  3. Speeding up procedures: 3D printing technology could also provide surgeons with custom-built tools for each procedure. Surgeries of 4 to 8 hours were reduced by 1.5 to 2.5 hours when anatomical models and patient-specific instruments were used, meaning hospitals could potentially schedule more surgeries each day, cutting waiting lists.

    Dr Chaudhuri also noted that such customisation could also make surgeries less invasive (e.g. removing less bone or tissue) and result in less associated risks for the patient (e.g. by requiring less anaesthesia).

  4. Real-life training opportunities: the technology enables trainee surgeons to familiarise themselves with the steps to take in complex surgeries by practicing their skills on examples that accurately replicate real patient problems, and with greater variety.

Caution advised

Whilst the benefits are clear and compelling, Dr Chaudhuri and colleagues advise caution. They acknowledge that 3D printing is a significant financial investment, particularly for NHS hospitals already operating under financial pressures.

To help answer the question of whether such an investment is worthwhile, the team have also developed a framework to aid hospital decision-makers in determining the return on investment for their particular institution.

Dr Chaudhuri said:

“The decision to implement 3D printing in hospitals or to engage service providers will require careful analysis of complexity, demand, lead-time criticality and the hospital’s own objectives.”

More information

• The framework mentioned above can be found in the full article, published in the International Journal of Operations and Production Management.
• For more information on Dr Atanu Chaudhuri, visit his staff profile.
• Listen to Dr Chaudhuri talk about this research on the Tech for Good podcast.
• Dr Chaudhuri is also a member of the Centre for Innovation and Technology Management and Fellow of the Wolfson Institute of Health and Wellbeing.
• Read articles on recent research at the Business School.