Strides in 3D Printing Offer Game-Changing Applications for Radiology


How advances in 3D printing could bring significant changes to radiology practices.

3D printer

Radiologists have always been at the forefront of adopters of new technologies, apropos of a field that relies so heavily on technology in its daily operation. Yet, the untapped opportunities and applications of 3D printing have not been fully utilized in our specialty.

Recent improvements in 3D printing have enabled improved printer portability, decreased cost-per-unit, customizability of forms and materials, increased speed from inception to production, and the ability to share files and model plans without needing to ship the physical product. It’s now possible to have separate models made for each unique patient situation or training requirement and have them made quick enough to utilize in relatively urgent situations.

Key emerging applications of 3D printing technology include preprocedural planning, student and resident training, and patient education, all of which could benefit from a radiologist’s expertise and guidance.

Preprocedural planning

One of the most exciting uses of 3D printing for the immediate benefit of patient and physician is the ability to utilize custom models for preprocedural planning. A surgeon facing a difficult operation with complex anatomy may find it difficult to be fully prepared for the unique challenges encountered in a particular patient. One-size-fits-all models would not be able to replicate individual variability sufficiently enough for pre-operative practice or hand-on planning.

Work by Tserovski et al. demonstrated the successful use of a 3D printed model to plan all possible angles prior to a difficult revision hip surgery. Similar models can be produced either as visual planning references or with more realistic materials that allow hands on practice, even accepting sutures. With radiologists’ imaging and anatomical expertise, interdisciplinary work using this technology could be extremely beneficial and could help improve patient procedural outcomes.

Improved learning

In addition to its role in pre-procedural planning, 3D printing technologies can further address a significant need for improved learning devices and hands-on training tools. For instance, Awan et al. demonstrated that the use of models greatly improved radiology resident understanding of complex anatomical topics.

Particularly for radiology residents who need to master abstract internal anatomy and intricate anatomical relationships, having a set of tactile learning tools for any structure could speed the training process greatly and afford each resident the ability practice on models individually before applying the knowledge later.

The addition of 3D printing to other didactic tools-including virtual reality devices and computer-assisted curricula-can present a set a revolutionary hands-on learning techniques and contribute to a paradigm shift in content delivery and radiology education.

Patient education

A third highly useful application with a great potential is the utility of 3D printing in patient education and procedural consent. Challenges in obtaining informed consent can often occur with abstract anatomical concepts or presentations that are lacking in patient specificity.

Both these issues can be addressed by the aid of 3D-printed models that can be interacted with and are individualized to a particular patient’s upcoming procedure. Recent research has shown that the use of 3D lung models customized with markers for the location of patients’ lung tumors drastically improved patent understanding and satisfaction during the informed consent process. The opportunity to physically manipulate a model specific to the needs of the individual patient can be extremely beneficial in improving patient comprehension. It can also aid decision making-especially given the now-treatable, increasingly-complex pathologies and advanced image-guided procedural techniques offered, such as those offered by radiologists.

Given its practicality, versatility, portability, and effectiveness, 3D printing technology is rapidly emerging as a useful tool with new healthcare-related applications arising everyday. Due to their exceptional understanding of imaging, anatomy, and informatics which are essential elements for successful utilization of 3D printing, radiologists are uniquely equipped to optimize the value of this technology in healthcare and potentially serve as gatekeepers for its safe, effective, and innovative use.

Radiologists can, and should, take advantage of this game changer for the benefit of their patients, trainees, and practices.

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Nina Kottler, MD, MS
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