By Bryan Mercer

I’ve been a pharmacist for over 30 years now and seen many changes in the healthcare industry. But I think one of the biggest changes is just around the corner – 3D printing.

You’ve probably been hearing more and more about 3D printing in the news. 3D printers are now affordable at the consumer level (you can get one at Walmart for just a little over $1,000) and they’re being used to make everything from toys to clothes to the controversial 3D printed guns. 3D printing is expected to make major changes to the architecture, construction, automotive and even aerospace industries, and healthcare will be no different.

For example, 3D printing already has and will continue to:

  1. Save Lives

    In May, Kaiba Gionfriddo became the first person to have his life saved by 3D printing. Kaiba was born with tracheobronchomalacia, a condition that affects 1 in 2,200 American babies. In most cases, the baby grows out of it by age 2 or 3. But in Kabia’s case, it was going to be fatal. The condition had closed his airways, and although he was being kept alive by a ventilator, doctors weren’t expecting a full recovery.

    That’s why they turned to 3D printing to do something that could never have been done before – design and build a customized splint in just a couple days.

    Scott Hollister, a biomedical engineer, took a scan of Kaiba’s chest and used it to design a splint specifically for his trachea that would allow him to breathe. The process wasn’t easy. In addition to designing and building the splint, the doctors had to get emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration before they could use it. And even then they only thought it had a 50-50 chance of working.

    Fortunately the procedure was a success! Within minutes Kaiba began breathing again, and within weeks he was completely off the ventilator. Of course this is just one example of what I believe will soon become commonplace.

  2. Customized Medical Products

    Whether you’re looking for a prosthetic, implant, or simple hearing aid, you’ll no longer need to buy a mass produced one. Soon, you’ll be able to get one made specifically for your body type. This will be especially useful to young patients, who grow quickly and constantly need new medical devices to fit their ever-changing bodies.

    Of course, if you had enough money you could get customized prosthetics, implants, etc. before choosing 3D printing. The difference is this will become an affordable option for more and more Americans, which leads me to my next point…

  3. Medical Products Will Become Cheaper

    When more and more patients can print their medical devices from home, demand will go down and so should the prices. Plus, creative individuals will now be able to take apart their medical devices, figure out a way to rebuild them with cheaper parts, and share/sell their designs.

    One such individual is Jose Gomez-Marquez, head of MIT’s Little Devices Lab. He and his team of eight have made it their goal to help reduce wasteful spending in the healthcare industry by empowering patients and healthcare providers to make their own efficient, inexpensive medical products.

    One example includes spoons that track how fast a patient eats. Currently they retail for around $100, but Gomez-Marquez is working on a prototype that should cut the cost down to $10. Another prototype his team came up with was combining parts from a toy gun to fit on an IV pole, thereby making an IV alarm.

    Of course, if people are printing cheap medical products from home this will also lead to…

  4. FDA Approval Complications

    For decades the FDA has kept us safe from unsafe foods, drugs, and medical products. But how will they regulate products people can print from home?

    In the case of Kaiba, the FDA gave emergency approval because it was the only option for saving his life. Without the FDA’s approval, the doctors wouldn’t have been able to perform the surgery and implant the device (at least not legally). Scott Hollister, the engineer who designed the emergency trachea splint, and his coworker Dr. Glenn Green are pushing for wider FDA approval of 3D printed medical device.

    Some people will likely bypass FDA approval and design, print, and share their own medical devices from home. But if a faulty medical device design got out there, it could endanger people’s lives. What will likely be needed is a new system for reviewing and approving 3D printed devices, and a way to make sure consumers know which products are safe and approved, and which aren’t.

    Despite these complications, I think 3D printing will have an overall positive impact on American healthcare, at least for the consumer. But like anything, 3D printing does have downsides.

  5. Negative Health Effects

    A new study has shown that the ultra-fine particles emitted by 3D printers, most of which are mere nanometers in diameter, have serious health consequences when inhaled. They can make their way into your lungs, bloodstream, bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen, heart, and even brain, causing serious side effects ranging from an increase in asthma symptoms to stroke to cardio-respiratory mortality.

    The scientists who conducted the study warned that 3D printers should only be used in well-ventilated areas with a fume hood or overhead exhaust system to clear the area of any ultra-fine particles. They also found that of the two popular 3D printing materials – acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA) – ABS emitted 10 times as many particles.

Though 3D printing could have some negative impacts on healthcare, for the most part it looks like the changes will be positive. And either way it’s here to stay. I look forward to seeing what new medical devices and treatments creative individuals are able to make using 3D printing.

Video Credit: UMHealthSystem |