In the past few years, 3D printing has become one of the more exciting and transformative trends in the technological realm. Although it started as a movement that was most apparent in industries like manufacturing and consumer products, it is now entering into much different conversations, including that of radiology.
Radiology and imaging have become hotbeds for technological innovation, and 3D printing appears to be one of the latest and more progressive to take shape in these industries in recent memory. Let’s take a look at some of the impacts 3D printing is likely to have on radiology, as well as how radiologists are already beginning to leverage the technology in practice to improve:
First and foremost, it is important to know how 3D printing first entered into the world of radiology. Health Data Management explained that the first instance of use appears to have occurred as far back as 2001 at the Mayo Clinic, where an interventional spine neuroradiologist leveraged it to assist in his work. At the same time, the news provider pointed out that 3D printing is just now beginning to come into style across the radiology realm, as professionals can leverage it for educational, research and other purposes. Perhaps most importantly, the source pointed to the use of 3D printers creating artificial body parts as the greatest advantage of all.
For example, Health Data Management pointed out that patients will often not fully understand what a physician is trying to explain to them when looking at printed images taken by a radiologist. Physicians and other practitioners have seen an improvement in patient understanding of treatment plans, diagnoses and more when they have a model to look at while discussing these matters.
Radiology Today reported that 2015 truly marked the beginning of 3D printing’s rise to prominence in the radiology community, made apparent by the intense demand for learning sessions at that year’s iteration of the Radiological Society of North America’s annual conference.
“Three years ago, I started the program, which was dedicated only to didactics,” Frank Rybicki, Ph.D., told the magazine of his 3D printing sessions. “Two years ago, we had the first hands-on course and all 600 tickets ‘sold out’ in record time. This past year, we expanded to 360 minutes of didactics plus four hands-on sessions. Those were massively attended. Each year, the program gets exponentially bigger.”
The source noted that the technology’s breakthrough into the radiology arena will likely be far more pronounced once insurers and the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as well as other entities, begin to reimburse radiology departments and organizations for the purchase of 3D printers.
RSNA provides guidance on the clinical implications and applications of 3D printing, noting that it is having a particularly large impact on the relationships held between surgeons and radiologists, especially since model accuracy has been so strong. Radiologists play a major role in the creation of the 3D printed models since the majority of those assets are produced through CT images, which must be accurate to properly feed the right information into the printers.
According to RSNA, the most common use of 3D printing in radiology thus far has been within craniofacial and maxiliofacial health care, as 3D-printed models can save time in operating rooms for surgeons and others. However, 3D printing can also be found in different areas of medicine and surgery, such as neurosurgery, chest and neck imaging, cardiovascular care and musculoskeletal radiology.
One could look at 3D printing as the next step in radiology’s evolution, as it propels the end product of work done by these professionals into a more prominent and valuable arena. As such, individuals who are currently looking to step into a radiology career, or go back to school to earn their bachelor’s, need to be aware of the implications that come alongside 3D printing.
Key Trends in Medical 3D Printing
Diagnostic Imaging listed some of the main themes that are taking shape in the 3D printing market as they relate to radiology and health care at large – all of which will likely become more relevant to radiologists as time goes on. For example, Diagnostic Imaging stated that the hardware involved is beginning to process a wider range of materials, meaning that imaging professionals might be able to create more life-like models in the coming years.
Diagnostic Imaging explained that segmentation software and services related to management, implementation and support are also gaining steam in the medical community due to the novelty of 3D printing in these settings, as well as the high demand for the technology in the medical community. Diagnostic Imaging also noted that computer-aided design, or CAD, software is becoming more intertwined with 3D printing technology. CAD can assist radiologists and others in creating more accurate and comprehensive models off of the traditional images taken in CT and other scans.
Finally, Diagnostic Imaging argued that some companies, including Materialise and EOS Imaging, have created product and service packages that are specifically aimed at medical imaging and radiology professionals, with those solutions including everything from a printer to data integration tools that link scans to the printers.
General Keys of Use
Generally speaking, radiologists will often need to follow guidelines similar to those offered by AuntMinnie staff writer Eric Barnes, who cited the commentary of Dr. Anish Ghodadra who spoke at an RSNA event in 2016. The author stated that the four key steps include the acquisition of images, the use of segmentation and plenty of testing within the printing process. He also warned professionals regarding STL files – a software file format – which are growing more popular in the imaging arena, but make it more difficult to print accurate models.
At the end of the day, these types of standardized workflows and processes will be critical.
“3D printing has grown by leaps and bounds over the last several years, and what we’ve come to understand is that radiology is essentially moving into the realm of manufacturing,” said Ghodadra, according to Barnes. “We must establish protocols to ensure repeatable and reliable model production. It’s like running a little machine shop. Having spent some time as a device engineer, the one lesson I took away was that it’s easy to do something well once. The challenge is doing it consistently.”
Looking forward, radiologists and imaging professionals will need to keep an eye on 3D printing.