There's way more to the VA 3D printing project than just prosthesis

3D Printer

Think printing prosthetics is all the Veterans Health Administration is doing with 3D printing? Think again. 

Exhibitors at the VHA Innovation Experience hosted in Washington, D.C. this week brought all sorts of printers and products — all used to support veterans. 

"This is more than a project really — it's a movement," said Beth Ripley, a VHA senior innovation fellow working out of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System. "It's a movement to understand how 3D printing technology can benefit veterans."

Ripley stood next to a Stratasys F370 printer that had just spent six hours building a heart. 

F370 Printer

But hearts are far from the only thing these developers are working on printing. 

"Really the greatest need we see in the veteran community is to get our patients back to doing the things they love and feeling whole," Ripley said. "One big problem we've seen is spinal cord injuries, paralysis, loss of limb — all of these things make it much harder to interact in a daily environment. So a lot of our 3D printing technologies have to do with understanding that patient and what they love to do."

For some patients, this means designing, engineering, and printing a prosthetic adapter to help a veteran get back to fishing. Or a custom 3D-printed brace that allows a father with a hand contracture to pick up his 15-month-old daughter again. 

"That's the beauty of 3D printing," Ripley said. "It really allows us to get personal with the patient, understand what they want, and then design. And that's where designers, engineers, and medicine are all coming together."

And that's exactly what the Innovation Experience allows VA researchers to do. Across the country at least 25 VHA's are actively participating in 3D printing research — communication between the facilities is key. 

"This is an opportunity for innovators and VAs across the country to come together to one place and show off what they've been doing, find new collaborators, make connections," Ripley said. "It's also an opportunity to be around other creative minds and celebrate in innovation." 

"We can all learn from each other," said Chris Richburg, a mechanical engineer working out of the Center for Limb Loss and Mobility. "Everyone here is doing something new and unique in the VA."

For example, across the room from the F370 printer, a different model printer was working hard in the opposite corner to print what would soon be a completely organic piece of human bone. The bone fragment could be designed and printed to perfectly fit into an existing piece of bone which would then heal around the synthetics-free fragment. 

But this procedure, along with many of the other processes being researched in the VA 3D printing network, is a few years still from mass implementation. 

"3D printing is really still a frontier in medicine," Richburg said. "For example, right now the FDA really doesn't have any guidelines or regulations regarding 3D printing in medicine particularly at the point of care like at hospitals versus manufacturers. But the VA is leading the way in bringing 3D printing into VA hospitals and we're working with the FDA right now to help develop those guidelines."

In the meantime, the more veterans know about the 3D printing possibilities within VHA, the more they can take advantage of them — at no additional cost. 

"We really want VA providers to know that this is out there," Ripley said. "So sharing what we're doing, how it can be used, making sure patients understand, and just getting people excited is important." 

"And all of this is at no additional cost," Ripley added. "This is all part of the cost of care. We'll see how it evolves in the future, but that's one of the unique things about the VA. We don't have to worry about billing and can we bill for it. We just worry about what the patient needs."

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