Quality of Life

white 3D printing pieceWe all want to live a good life, although what the "good life"  means varies from person to person. Part of that good life is aging with dignity and in comfort. We can't necessarily avoid ailments associated with aging, but we can look for better ways to treat, manage and cope with them.

With the rise of advanced medical technologies and especially with the ability to read the human genome, personalized medicine will probably become a central part of the quality of life. Personalized medicine tailors medical treatment "to the individual characteristics, needs, and preferences of a patient during all stages of care, including prevention, diagnosis, treatment and follow-up."

One of the key benefits of personalized medicine is its ability to avoid "one-size-fits-all" or trial-and-error medicine. Through improved diagnostics, including genomic analysis, treatment plans targeted at specific personal characteristics can be devised.

Improving Quality of Life

Much of the focus of the thinking on personalized medicine has been on genomic analysis. But a large part of medicine for an aging population involves assistive technology or AT. AT is any "item, piece of equipment, program, or product system, used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities."

Assistive technology, however, involves producing items on a one-size-fits-all basis. Walkers, Foley catheters, and other medical devices all are mass-produced. In many cases, of course, the lack of individuality doesn't matter. Some items, especially those which enhance accessibility, can be 3D printed to order, ensuring a close fit between the individual and the AT.

It does not seem that incontinence and ostomy products will be the target of 3D printing soon. Coloplast, a manufacturer of these products, indicates the benefit of 3D printing to them will be more for prototyping.

That said, many other AT items can be made available at a lower cost through 3D printing. And they can be customized to the individual. Prosthetic hands, for example, can be 3D printed personally.

Cost Reduction and Personalization

The design for the Robohand has been open-sourced, lowering the costs of production tremendously. Because of the nature of 3D printing, even the commercial manufacture of products by 3D printing will have lower costs and less waste.

Many of the potential products can even extend human capabilities. Hendricks discusses the bionic ear produced by researchers at Princeton, which can hear radio frequencies.

In general, 3D printing reduces costs in four ways. First, the ability to customize a product on a mass scale reduces the use of trial-and-error. Second, the fact that the technology is entirely digital makes it easy to modify and transfer. Third, the cost of the manufacturing equipment and plant is reduced. Finally, it is efficient in its use of material because there’s little waste from the process.

Costs for complex surgeries can also be reduced. One dramatic example involved a middle-aged woman with a brain aneurysm. Repairing the aneurysm requires invasive, delicate surgery.

Using information from a CT scan, the 3D model of the blood vessels involved allowed the surgeon to conduct a dry run of the surgery. Not only did this process reduce the risks involved, but it also reduced the length of the operation, thus the costs for using the operating room.

Another area with potential for 3D printing is in pharmaceuticals. Drug pills and capsules are a perfect example of one-size-fits-all. They're produced in the most common prescription sizes.

The shape of the pills can affect release time for drugs. With 3D printing, drug manufacturers and pharmacists could now vary the shape and dosage of medicines. Patients could even be sold drug-infused filaments, and print the pill at home.

3D printing may be able to produce a cast, which coupled with ultrasonic technology, could reduce healing time for broken bones. One example of 3D printing's benefits for aging people could be a grip extension, usable for seat belts, from which those with impaired dexterity or agility can benefit.

Coming Attractions

3D printing will have many future applications. Recent publicity includes hearing aids and prosthetics. Implants fitted to the person will help arthritic patients get around. They can even have electronic sensors to collect and manage health information. Other, external products, such as CPAP equipment, might also come from this sector.

As noted above, pharmaceuticals can be produced to target the individual's specific system, not just generic humans. Tissue repair and organ replacements are on the horizon. 3D printed products may someday serve as the scaffold for tissue engineering, along with stem cell technology.