The capability for three-dimensional printing in treating patients has received increased attention in healthcare, and it’s a widely discussed topic at this week’s annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago.

A step beyond merely viewing a 3-D view of a troubled heart; it’s the ability to take a 3-D image, scrape away extraneous detail and zero in the problem at hand, and then hold that problem in your hands as a clinician, a clinical team, or as part of a clinician-patient discussion.

3-D printing also has the potential to enable customization of implants that meet specific patient needs, says Nigel Finch, chairman of 3D Medical, which in October entered into a merger agreement with Mach7 Technologies. As implants become more commonly used to address patient injuries and chronic conditions, 3D printing of implants enables a change in perspective for how to approach these procedures, Finch says.

“With implants, it’s all about precision,” he adds. “Previously, a big part of the surgery had been about modifying the patient to ‘fit’ the implant. Now, with 3-D printing, we can modify the implant to fit the patient.”

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3-D printing was recently used to fabricate a replacement prosthetic jaw for a patient in Australia, and the successful surgery eliminated increasing pain the patient had felt while chewing, says Eric Rice, chief technology officer for Mach7.

It is also increasingly being considered for dental implants, another replacement procedure that requires precise fitting. Advances in the strength of materials that can be used to produce objects in 3D printing may soon allow common use of the technology for making implants, Finch says.

3-D printing also can be used to design highly individualized shields to protect patients from the harmful effects of radiation, Finch adds.

The 3D Medical-Mach7 combination provides opportunities for 3-D printing to be incorporated into clinicians’ workflow while working through viewers connected to Mach7’s enterprise image management systems. As envisioned, the technology would enable clinicians to order 3-D renderings within the teleradiology system.

“It would take the medical image, some patient-specific information and order information, and then route that to an engineering team,” Finch says. “That decision could be made right in front of the viewer.”

Making 3-D printing easier and enabling clinicians to make educated decisions within traditional workflows of treating patients is likely to help spur further use of the technology within healthcare, many imaging experts believe.

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