3D printed anatomical models can now be found in many hospitals all over the world, specifically made to prepare surgeons for very unusual and highly complex surgeries. Among the most extreme cases we’ve seen so far is this 3D printed heart model that helped save the life of a five-day-old Russian baby born with a congenital heart defect. While these type of projects are usually one-off and rare, many hospitals are increasingly systemizing the production of 3D printed surgical models. The Elisabeth-TweeSteden Hospital in Tilburg, the Netherlands, has just taken a 3D printer in operation for that very purpose.
Specifically, this new 3D printing system will be focusing on bone fractures and aims to help the Tilburg trauma surgeons perfectly prepare for particularly complex fractures. The initiative is being spearheaded by surgeon Mike Bemelman, who has already tested the procedure on numerous body parts – including pelvises, hips, knees and even a life-sized rib cage. All models are based on CT scans made of patients, with 3D printing following as soon as possible. Right now, the surgeon estimates that the 3D printer will be running 24 hours a day – unsurprising if you learn that a pelvis model easily takes 16 hours to complete.
But as Bemelman explains, the added value is immense. “These 3D models provide me, as a trauma surgeon, with so much more data. At a moment’s notice, I can suddenly see exactly where the fracture is and how it can be optimally treated. Even very small fractures, often overlooked on a screen, become very visible,” he says. The previous, digital procedure required surgeons to go through CT scans shot by shot to get a complete image of the fracture.
All that gathered data is subsequently used to set up a very precise and quick surgery plan. “I can write down numbers on the 3D printed model, clearly showing the order of the steps that will need to be taken during surgery,” he says. “What’s more, we can already bend the metal plates and cut the screws down to size before the surgery, using the model. This cuts down on surgery times.”
While patients in Tilburg can already benefit from this important new procedure, the surgeons are still testing the waters as well. In an attempt to uncover the full potential of medical 3D printing, doctor-researcher Lars Brouwers from the Netwerk Acute Zorg Brabant (NAZB, Network for Immediate Care Brabant) recently started a new 3D printing study. He will be submitting various cases to experienced trauma surgeons, some with a CT scan, others with a 3D printed model, to discover the impact 3D printing has on prepping procedures.
As Brouwers revealed, they are expecting that the 3D printed models will enable quicker and more efficient fracture classification and treatment. “We also believe that these 3D printed models can help young and less experienced surgeons to get to grips with particularly complex surgery techniques. This new study will also look into that,” the researcher added.
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