Like most radiologists out there, Dr. Beth Ripley is techie. She does not spend her days reading images off the computer screens; she has them with her at hand. By saying this, you will probably imagine Dr. Ripley holding onto a USB drive or hard-disk, containing all the scans in black and white to be shown to a group of colleagues at the latest Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) assembly and annual meeting. Unfortunately, that did not happen, what Dr. Ripley had with her were 3D models of her patients’ hearts, skulls, kidneys, and other organs. 

Dr. Ripley started venturing into 3D printing at the Department of Veterans Affairs at VA Puget Sound Health Care System back in 2016. She believes training aspiring radiologists with thousands of 2-dimensional MRI or CT scans until they are able to confidently identify abnormalities requires time and tremendous effort. However, inputting data and information obtained from these scans to generate a representative anatomical structure via 3D printing, helps in abbreviating the process. 

Limited medical usage 

Furthermore, 3D printing allows radiologists to have “a richer and more intuitive understanding of a patient’s physiology, which helps to make clearer diagnoses and plan for surgeries,” Dr. Ripley told GE healthcare. Some healthcare professionals thought radiologists are at an advantage to adopting 3D printing because they are able to manage the entire workflow from the acquisition of images to getting the final product printed. 

Presently, the impact of 3D printing on healthcare remains limited because there are not many software companies targeting at the industry. At the very beginning, Dr. Ripley had to adopt non-medical software, with other computer-aided design applications, to create and print out anatomical models for surgeons. Nevertheless, Dr. Ripley is confident that the technology will only aid in the communication between physicians. 3D printing will also enable surgeons to explain to the patient, the complexity of their medical condition and how the surgery is likely to be carried out. 

Regulatory challenges 

3D printing may be convenient and flexible but it poses a regulatory challenge. As the technology gains popularity and becomes cheaper, it means anyone who has a 3D printer will be able to reproduce medical devices. They need to have to be registered enterprises. Despite so, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved over 100 3D printed medical devices for the past decade. 

Generally, the FDA looked at the safety of the end product and its intended use. Additional attention is also paid to higher risk products that do not resemble any on the market and requires a pre-market approval process. The other regulatory challenge foresee by the legal adviser is 3D printing moves medical devices from “one size fits all” to “patient-specific”, this means that new regulations will have to consider differences among individuals, rather than similarities. 

All these could ultimately slow down the entire innovation process. What is your thought on 3D printing and radiology? Let us know by commenting below. Do note that AIMed Radiology will take place between 18 and 19 June at Ritz-Carlton, Chicago and we are going to continue our discussions on how artificial intelligence (AI) and new technology are impacting the field of radiology. 

Author Bio
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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in current affair, culture and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.