3D Printing is the Future of Healthcare in Developing Countries – Here’s Why

KEY TAKEAWAYS

3D printing is transforming healthcare in emerging economies by providing customized, affordable medical solutions. It addresses remote healthcare challenges and supports education and local manufacturing. However, regulatory issues and upfront costs need attention.

The advancement of three-dimensional (3D) printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing, has opened up new possibilities across various industries. But one of its most promising applications is in the field of healthcare.

The technology is primarily used in North America, Europe, and increasingly in Asia. But in emerging economies, where access to high-quality medical devices and prosthetics is often limited, 3D printing is emerging as a game-changer.

In remote and economically underdeveloped areas, 3D-printed prosthetic limbs, disease prevention tools, and other medical items offer affordable and customized solutions that can improve the lives of many individuals in these regions.

In this article, we explore the role of 3D printing in creating accessible medical devices and prosthetics in emerging economies.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing technology has existed for decades, but it is only in recent years that the hardware, software, and materials required have become affordable and accessible enough for widespread adoption.

Such printers work by producing physical items from multiple thin layers of material based on digital designs. By constructing objects layer by layer, 3D printers can create intricate structures and unconventional shapes that are difficult or impossible to produce using traditional manufacturing methods.

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As the technology develops, users are increasingly sharing and downloading designs in 3D printing repositories, boosting their accessibility.

Items are typically printed in small batches, and the designs can be adjusted to reduce the weight and number of components, as well as the cost, to create compact, lightweight, and affordable medical devices with internal functionality. The technology has a range of applications in creating orthopedic, dental, surgical, and other devices.

Types of 3D Printing

There are three types of 3D printing or additive manufacturing, which use different materials and methods for bonding layers: selective laser sintering (SLS), fused deposition modeling (FDM), and stereolithography (SLA).

  • SLS uses a laser to draw the object in powder-based materials and to bind layers of powder as they are added. This method can be used to produce metal, ceramic, wax, nylon, or composite parts.
  • FDM works in a similar way to an inkjet printer to deposit melted lines of plastic in layers onto a platform in a rapid prototyping technique called “layered manufacturing.” FDM is relatively inexpensive and can use many types of plastic.
  • SLA uses light to solidify a layer of photoreactive polymer liquid and build it into the model by adding layers. Once it has solidified, the item is lifted out of any excess liquid.

Each method is suited to different types of medical applications depending on the needs of medical professionals and patients.

3D Printing Applications in Healthcare

The large disparity between poor and rich countries in accessing healthcare is demonstrated by the fact that research shows that 73.6% of surgical procedures take place in developed countries – which accounts for 30.2% of the global population – while only 3-5% are performed in the poorest 34.8%.

The obstacles to delivering healthcare in emerging economies center around a lack of physical resources and inadequate infrastructure.

There are several ways that 3D printing technology can be used to increase access, having a demonstrable impact in improving quality of life and reducing untimely deaths in these regions.

Customization and Accessibility

One of the most significant advantages of 3D printing in healthcare is its ability to produce customized devices, such as prosthetics, implants, and surgical instruments. This is particularly valuable in emerging economies, where access to mass-produced medical devices may be limited or unaffordable.

Traditional manufacturing methods are not well-suited to producing personalized medical equipment, as they rely on large-scale production to be cost-effective.

In contrast, 3D printing allows for the creation of personalized devices that meet the unique anatomical needs of each patient, improving fit, comfort, and effectiveness while reducing the risk of complications.

Printed models can be designed to reflect the specific characteristics of each patient, allowing surgeons to develop accurate surgical planning and enhance their preparedness before they perform each procedure. This can also help to improve preoperative assessment and patient counseling as well as the management of postoperative outcomes, potentially reducing complications and saving costs by reducing operative times.

3D-printed surgical guides can assist surgeons in performing complex procedures such as joint replacement and spinal surgeries, improving accuracy and precision, which contribute to higher success rates and shorter recovery times.

Producing Affordable Prosthetics

The availability of prosthetic limbs is critical for individuals who have lost a limb to accidents, diseases, or congenital conditions. However, prosthetics can be expensive, putting them out of reach for many people in emerging economies. 3D printing has changed this by offering an affordable alternative. Prosthetic limbs can be customized and produced at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.

This can benefit emerging economies in two ways. They can buy and operate 3D printers locally to produce printed arms, legs, and other prostheses, or they can import 3D-printed prosthetics from a supplier or an on-demand manufacturing company.

Organizations like e-NABLE have led the way in distributing open-source 3D-printed prosthetic hand designs, allowing volunteers to use their 3D printers to create prosthetics for children and adults in need.

Bringing Telemedicine and Access to Remote Communities

In many emerging economies, healthcare resources are concentrated in urban centers, leaving remote communities underserved. 3D printing technology, coupled with telemedicine, can bridge this gap.

Local healthcare providers in remote and underfunded medical clinics can use portable 3D printers to create and replace essential medical equipment and supplies, reducing the need for costly and logistically challenging transportation.

For example, 3D-printed microscopes can help to detect bacteria and diseases in water, helping communities to avoid water-borne infections. Organizations like WaterScope, which spun out from Cambridge University, are developing simple, open-source microscopes that can be 3D printed from plastic. Testing kits can also check other fluids, such as blood and saliva, for diseases, even in remote areas without hospitals or dedicated laboratories.

Telemedicine platforms can connect local healthcare professionals with specialists in urban centers, enabling remote consultations and guidance for 3D printing processes.

Improving Medical Education

FDM and SLA can help healthcare professionals to fabricate detailed and precise anatomical models of bones, organs, and other body parts for teaching and training in hospitals or classrooms. The availability of accurate and easily accessible models is particularly valuable in emerging economies with limited resources.

3D printed models can aid medical research by helping healthcare professionals gain a better understanding of the complex pathologies and physiological processes associated with various conditions than 2D or 3D images in books or on screens.

Supporting Local Manufacturing

Another significant advantage of 3D printing in emerging economies is the ability to establish local manufacturing hubs. Instead of relying on expensive imports of medical devices and prosthetics, these countries can invest in 3D printing technology and produce them locally. This not only reduces costs but also creates jobs and stimulates economic growth. By building local capacity for 3D printing, emerging economies can become self-sufficient in meeting their healthcare needs.

Rapid Prototyping and Iteration

The iterative nature of 3D printing allows for rapid prototyping and design improvements. This is especially valuable in healthcare, where innovation and adaptation are critical. Medical devices and prosthetics can be quickly modified and tested to ensure they meet the specific needs of patients. This speed of development is a game-changer in providing accessible and effective healthcare solutions in emerging economies.

Challenges and Future Directions

While the potential of 3D printing in healthcare for emerging economies is significant, there are several challenges that must be addressed. These include regulatory issues, quality control, and the need for standardized designs. Additionally, the upfront cost of 3D printers and materials can be a barrier for some healthcare facilities.

Even the most basic supplies can be prohibitively expensive in some areas, and delivery times from distribution centers in other parts of the country or abroad can be impractical.

Collaboration between governments, international organizations, and private sector partners will be needed to create a supportive ecosystem for 3D printing in healthcare. This includes developing clear regulatory frameworks, providing training and education, and supporting research and development efforts.

The Bottom Line

Through customization, affordability, local manufacturing, and training, 3D printing technology has the potential to transform the lives of individuals in emerging economies by breaking down barriers to access quality, high-quality medical devices, and healthcare.

As the technology matures and becomes more widely adopted, the healthcare sector is realizing how portable 3D printers can be used in a variety of environments to deliver medical services to locations with scarce resources. Rather than importing medical equipment, materials, and devices, underserved areas can use 3D printing to immediately produce basic medical supplies, laboratory equipment, and devices.

As this technology continues to improve and prices fall, 3D printing can reduce the cost of providing medical devices, making them more accessible and reducing development timelines for bringing new devices to market.

However, in the poorest, most inaccessible regions, widespread adoption could remain limited without the support of governments and international organizations.

With adequate support, the possibility for increased accessibility and improved patient outcomes could make 3D printing central to the future of healthcare.

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Nicole Willing

Nicole is a professional journalist with 20 years of experience in writing and editing. Her expertise spans both the tech and financial industries. She has developed expertise in covering commodity, equity, and cryptocurrency markets, as well as the latest trends across the technology sector, from semiconductors to electric vehicles. She holds a degree in Journalism from City University, London. Having embraced the digital nomad lifestyle, she can usually be found on the beach brushing sand out of her keyboard in between snorkeling trips.