A study into the costs versus benefits of introducing 3D printing technology into hospitals has shown that not only can such innovations aid complicated surgeries, but they can also be a key tool in easing both time and financial pressures for hospitals.
The study, undertaken by Dr Atanu Chaudhuri, Associate Professor in Technology and Operations Management at Durham University 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.
The researchers conducted interviews, workshops and field visits 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.
Dr Chaudhuri, who is also member of the Centre for Innovation and Technology Management at the Business School and Fellow of the Wolfson Institute of Health and Wellbeing at Durham University, says,
“Our study sought to address two key concerns from the healthcare sector when considering whether to commit to the significant financial investment that 3D printing technology would require. First, we wanted to discover 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. Second, we aimed to understand how hospitals make decisions regarding investment in 3D printing for surgical purposes, and how our research might help clarify that process.”
Dr Chaudhuri’s study reveals that introducing such technology into hospitals could help alleviate many of the strains the UK healthcare system and healthcare systems worldwide face in four key ways.
- Boosting surgery success rates: The research reveals 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 for the surgeon to plan and practice the surgery, minimising the risk of error or unexpected complications. Dr Chaudhuri’s study also uncovered evidence to show that the use of 3D printed anatomical models was also useful when communicating the details of the surgery with the patient, helping to increase their confidence in the procedure.
- Speeding up patient recovery time: The research recorded 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, patient recovery times and the need for subsequent hospital appointments or treatments. This, according to Dr Chaudhuri, 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.
- Speeding up procedures: 3D printing technology could also provide surgeons with custom-built tools for each procedure. Dr Chaudhuri’s research shows that surgeries with durations of four to eight hours were reduced by 1.5 to 2.5 hours when patient-specific instruments were used, meaning hospitals could potentially schedule a greater number of surgeries each day, cutting hospital waiting lists. An additional benefit, Dr Chaudhuri notes, is that such customisation could also make surgeries less invasive (for example, removing less bone or tissue) and result in less associated risks for the patient (for example by requiring less anaesthesia).
- 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.
Whilst the benefits are clear and compelling, Dr Chaudhuri and his fellow researchers advise caution. They acknowledge that 3D printing is a significant financial investment for hospitals to make, particularly those ran by the NHS already operating under significant financial pressures.
In order to help answer the question of whether such an investment is worthwhile, the researchers have also developed a framework to aid hospital decision-makers in determining the return on investment for their particular institution.
Dr Chaudhuri says,
“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.”
This research was published in the International Journal of Operations and Production Management