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3D Printing May Help Improve Health Care in Developing Countries

With rapidly expanding uses and decreasing costs, 3D printing technology could aid efforts to improve healthcare and increase access to surgery in resource-poor countries, according to a special topic article in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery-Global Open®, the official open-access medical journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS).

Used for applications like printing surgical supplies, laboratory equipment, and even prosthetic limbs, "3D printing has the potential ability to promote initiatives across the entire developing world, resulting in improved surgical care and providing a higher quality of healthcare," write ASPS Member Surgeon Samuel J. Lin of Harvard Medical School and colleagues.

Surgical Uses of 3D Printing in Developing World

3D printing technology is not new, but it has only recently become readily available and inexpensive enough for widespread use. 3D printers can produce physical objects from digital designs, using plastic and other materials. A "layered manufacturing" technique called fused deposition modeling has emerged as the most economical 3D printing method.

In developed countries, 3D printing has found a growing range of health care applications. Many of these uses have been directly relevant to plastic and reconstructive surgery-including the ability to print implants, plates, and other surgical devices, customized to the individual patient's anatomy.

Dr. Lin and colleagues believe that 3D printing can also help to meet urgent need to improve health care in developing countries-including increased access to surgery. They write, "Although surgery has been viewed...as a high-cost treatment, it is now recognized as a public-health intervention aimed at preventing disability and death."

The authors introduce specific emerging uses of 3D printing to meet healthcare challenges in resource-poor countries. For example, 3D printers are already being used to manufacture basic medical supplies, such as small splints and clamps, for pennies apiece. This approach not only makes supplies available when and where they are needed-for example, in responding to natural disasters-but also avoids the costs and delays overseas shipping.

"3D printing has also been suggested for use in remote and underfunded medical clinics for the production of laboratory equipment," Dr. Lin and colleagues write. With the ability to assemble new printers from 3D-printed parts, the possibilities may expand rapidly.

One research firm has even used consumer-grade 3D printers to create low-cost, high-tech prosthetic limbs with controllable fingers, helping to restore independence to amputees in war-torn Sudan. "This effort represents a huge step forward in providing high-quality healthcare for those in poorer nations suffering from debilitating ailments," according to the authors.

In the future, with expected advances in technology and reductions in cost, the availability and opportunities of 3D printing will continue to increase. Dr. Lin and coauthors conclude, "There are still numerous untapped applications for 3D printing in medicine that have yet to surface, but if harnessed correctly may positively affect millions."

About PRS Global Open

Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery—Global Open (PRS Global Open) is an open access, rigorously peer-reviewed, international journal focusing on global plastic and reconstructive surgery. PRS Global Open educates and supports plastic surgeons globally to provide the highest quality patient care and maintain professional and ethical standards through education, research, and advocacy.

About ASPS

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) is the world's largest organization of board-certified plastic surgeons. Representing more than 7,000 Member Surgeons, the Society is recognized as a leading authority and information source on aesthetic and reconstructive plastic surgery. ASPS comprises more than 94 percent of all board-certified plastic surgeons in the United States. Founded in 1931, the Society represents physicians certified by The American Board of Plastic Surgery or The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. ASPS advances quality care to plastic surgery patients by encouraging high standards of training, ethics, physician practice and research in plastic surgery. 

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