It seems like every week I see an article or video about yet another situation where 3D printing was used to create prosthetics. The most recent was a foundation’s effort to test them in remote areas of Madagascar and Togo, where their seclusion makes it difficult to access appropriate prosthetics for amputees (1).
However, 3D printing has a bit of a history with prosthetics. The e-e-NABLE community creates and shares open source designs for prosthetic hands. Last year, Open Bionics passed the first stage of clinical testing in the UK, and is undergoing further testing to bring affordable custom bionic arms to those who could benefit from them.
But why 3D printing? After all, prosthetics have been made for years using a variety of methods successfully, but at an extreme cost to the patient. Without insurance, a purely cosmetic prosthetic arm can cost up to $5,000. If you’re looking for something with some level of function like the split hook pictured below, that cost can jump to $10,000.
For a prosthetic leg, which by nature will need to be more robust, the price can reasonably be expected to get up to $50,000. These high costs can prohibit those without access to top notch medical care from ever using a prosthetic. For children who tend to grow out of clothes – and prosthetics – quickly, a family may never be able to keep up with the cost of buying a new prosthetic every year.
3D printing’s ability to create complicated geometries, custom-tailored to each person, makes it the best tool for the job when aiming to make prosthetics more widely available. The technology seems to have found a note-worthy niche by creating prosthetics in situations where previously, people would be unable to utilize them. Perhaps we can look forward to a future where personalized prosthetic devices are widely used in the medical community.
(1) Remote Area 3D Printed Prosthetics: https://www.zdnet.com/article/3d-printing-trial-launched-to-help-amputees-in-madagascar-togo/
(2) Cost of a Prosthetic Arm: http://health.costhelper.com/prosthetic-arms.html
(3) Prosthetic Leg Costs Over a Lifetime: https://www.hss.edu/newsroom_prosthetic-leg-cost-over-lifetime.asp