Imagine if any patient could be at the top of any donor recipient list. As Baby Boomers reach their retirement years, policymakers and leaders in medicine are scrambling to find better health outcomes with lower expenses. Additive manufacturing could provide a real breakthrough in treating patients around the world, writes John Menna, Vice President of Global Strategy for Healthcare Logistics at UPS.
Even as people around the globe enjoy longer, healthier and more productive lives, the rising cost of healthcare threatens to impede such progress.
This is particularly troubling in the United States as Baby Boomers approaching retirement place a greater strain on an overburdened healthcare system.
Policymakers and medical leaders are scrambling for innovative ways to slow expenses, bracing for a demographic shift that will become arguably the central story in healthcare in the years ahead.
A Great Equalizer
However, one of the great equalizers could come in the form of another disruptive technology – 3D printing. Cost is at the center of the debate on 3D printing, with skeptics questioning whether 3D printers are too expensive to find a mainstream audience. But it’s equally as important to examine how additive manufacturing could bend the cost curve in a number of industries, especially healthcare.
It’s expensive to bring new drugs to market, and developing cutting-edge technologies for evolving threats requires significant investment.
Additive manufacturing would bring newfound efficiency to the healthcare supply chain, both at the front and back ends. Right now, the pharmaceutical industry spends more than $50 billion annually on research and development.
But with 3D printing, clinical trials for drugs could be more efficient, preserving valuable research and development budgets for private companies and nonprofits alike.
With developers creating treatment plans on demand, inventory levels would also shrink. U.S. hospitals, for example, generate more than 2 million tons of medical waste each year. Much of that “garbage” is unused medical supplies and equipment. Newer models often replace usable medical products that are destined for the landfill without ever leaving the bubble wrap.
3D Printing Efficiency
But 3D printers could root out such inefficiencies. Already, surgeons are using 3D printing to develop replicas of the human heart for surgery. Prosthetics for children that once cost tens of thousands of dollars now run a few hundred dollars. And 3-D printed tools are reducing error rates in surgeries.
This is just the beginning. With so-called bioprinting, cells could be deposited layer over layer to grow organs. Imagine a 3D-printed liver or even 3D-printed lungs.
The 3D printer would essentially place any patient at the top of any donor recipient list. Fewer people would risk death waiting for that perfect kidney match.
Much testing remains before widespread bioprinting becomes a reality. We must also clear a number of regulatory hurdles – safety and ethical standards should drive this process. This healthcare evolution won’t happen overnight, but 3D printing is providing a glimpse into a brighter future.
With 3D printing, scientists have created a bionic ear that can detect radio frequencies beyond the normal range of human hearing. Three-dimensional printers have created airway splints designed to grow as a baby grows. And researchers have developed 3D-printed skin for burn victims.
This is the ultimate form of personalized medicine, with doctors and surgeons tailoring medical plans to the individual rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Elderly patients in need of a hip or knee replacement could benefit from the 3D printer for specialty implants. Because the process is more exact, these patients would avoid the second or third procedure to replace traditional, less-effective implants.
Manufacturing Better Health
In such a future, patients would live healthier and happier while driving down the cost of specialized and costly medical procedures. But this is more about people than dollars and cents. Picture a patient living in a remote village in the heart of Africa without access to sophisticated surgeries and medicines. What was once too expensive – nothing more than a pipe dream – is now deliverable.
And a logistics provider like UPS can send 3D-printed medical supplies around the globe, connecting all corners of the world faster than ever before. In this 3D-printed future, we’ll treat more patients. And by today’s standards, we’ll do so for pennies on the dollar. And those troubling healthcare spending charts? They’ll start trending in a downward direction.
(Top image: Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and colleagues collaborated with Weill Cornell Medical College physicians to create an artificial ear using 3-D printing and injectable molds. Credit: Lindsay France, Cornell University.)
All views expressed are those of the author.