3-D Printing Could Revolutionize Health Care

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Posted on 12/11/2013

Getting medical supplies to communities that need them is a major challenge in some developing nations. Because of infrastructural difficulties that hamper travel to rural communities, medical centers often lack the supplies they need to help families. However, new technology — such as 3-D printing — could be a relatively inexpensive way to circumvent these challenges, as shown in Haiti.

Inventive Solutions

3-D printing functions in much the same way as inkjet printing. Rather than layering ink on paper, though, 3-D printing uses superheated polymers and plastics to create three-dimensional objects. To date, 3-D printing has been used to create everything from clothing to prosthetics and even artificial bones. One organization working in Haiti is using 3-D printers to create vital medical instruments, according to NPR.

In an interview, Ashley Dara of San Francisco-based company iLab Haiti detailed how 3-D printing technology has helped clinics in Haiti manufacture their own equipment. Haiti is an ideal place to test the viability of this application of 3-D printing, as the country is still recovering from a devastating earthquake in 2010 that laid waste to much of the island nation's infrastructure.

"While I was in Haiti last year, a dear friend of mine was running a hospital all by herself with limited resources," Dara told NPR. "One night she wound up having to deliver five babies and they had no umbilical cord clamps, so they were using their own rubber gloves, cutting them to tie off the umbilical cords, which meant that they went through their rubber gloves and had to then deliver babies barehanded with women that were HIV-positive. And all I could think was, wow, if we had a 3-D printer, I could've been printing on-demand umbilical cord clamps for you. So now our guys, or our students that we work with, are actually learning how to make very simple medical devices."

Virtually Unlimited Potential

Although sophisticated medical applications of 3-D printing are still in the nascent stages, researchers around the world have made several major breakthroughs in the use of the technology.

Scientists at Washington State University have made significant progress in adapting 3-D printing to manufacture bone-like substances that can be used in the treatment of bone fractures and other injuries. Meanwhile, a British company and the University of Sheffield have been working on technology designed to create and print human prosthetics from computer-aided design files, which are constructed from material that mimics the flexibility and density of human tissue, according to The Guardian.

It will be some time before 3-D printing becomes a common tool used in the health care sector, particularly in developing nations. Barriers to entry remain high because of the high costs of 3-D printers that are capable of producing these sophisticated models, but as iLab Haiti is demonstrating, potentially lifesaving equipment such as umbilical clamps can be quickly and easily produced in the world's poorest countries, a process that could save many lives.

Reaching Out

New technologies such as 3-D printing have vast potential to transform health care around the world, but there is a lot you can do today to help a child and his or her family. ChildFund works in some of the world's poorest countries to fight child poverty, and one of the best ways you can help is to sponsor a child. For just $28 per month, you can ensure that a boy or girl living in poverty has the food, water and health care he or she needs to survive.