3D printers can increasingly be found in hospitals all over the world, and are especially used by build surgical models to prepare for very unusual and highly complex surgeries. Back in April, the life of a five-day-old Russian baby was saved thanks to a 3D printed heart model used during a dangerous surgery to fix a congenital heart defect. But we could be heading towards a future where all surgeries are prepared with the help of 3D printed models. North London-based private surgeon Boyd Goldie has already adopted 3D printing for both emergency surgeries and for more regular procedures, as he sees significant cost saving, surgical preparation, and patient education opportunities.
An orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Goldie works in The Holly Private Hospital in London, and treats patients suffering from a wide range of upper limb complications – meaning problems affecting the shoulder, the arm, the wrist and hand. Among others, he treats broken wrists, frozen shoulders, torn rotator cuffs, tennis and golfer's elbow and a variety of nerve compressions.
During those surgeries, it’s very normal to make CT scans of a patient’s problem, and that data is sent to Dr. Goldie for review. While most surgeons prepare for surgeries using that digital file, this wasn’t enough for Dr. Goldie. “With modern radiology software you can get a virtual model on-screen, but there’s nothing like holding a model in your hands, thinking about where it is in the body and working out how you’re going to fix the problem,” he explains.
While some surgeons order externally-made 3D prints for particularly complex surgeries, the North London surgeon was never satisfied with those services. For not only are they very expensive, they can take weeks to be delivered. “This is no good if you have a guy with a broken wrist and you’re going to operate tomorrow,” he says.
The surgeon therefore purchased an Ultimaker 2+ 3D printer which, in combination with free software, has enabled him to 3D print accurate fracture replicas in a matter of hours – depending on the size of the problem area. “I asked the radiographers, the technicians, to put the CT onto a disk. You can then extract the files and import them into the software to make the finals for the 3D printer,” he says.
As he explains, this 3D printing procedure is utterly changing his workflow. “A lot of it is to do with me as a surgeon, helping me to plan my operation, give me a better understanding of what I’m dealing with so I don’t have any surprises when I come to do the operation,” he says. But equally important is the fact that patients can feel the 3D print for themselves, providing them with a much deeper understanding of their problem and what the doctor is going to do. Some patients find it so enlightening, they even ask the surgeon a copy of the model.
Of course, not all of these surgeries are in need of 3D printed models, as they have very high success rates to begin with. But as careful surgical preparation cuts down surgery times as well, it could also prove to be a very cost effective innovation. If anything, it’s a considerably cheaper and quicker alternative to conventional surgical props. And as this particular case illustrates, 3D printed surgical models are very beneficial to patients as well. Though many doctors simply don’t know about the technology (or its advantages) yet, we could be looking at the surgical procedure of the future.

3ders