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3D Printing Innovating the Care of Our Nation’s Veterans


By Gerald Sonnenberg

EES Marketing and Communication

SEATTLE -- VA staff are always looking for better ways to care for our Veterans, and evaluating the use of the latest technology and trends is a necessary part of this effort. As the largest integrated health care system in the country, VA not only cares for our nation’s heroes, but it is in a unique position to advance change and positively affect the way America delivers health care. The use of 3-dimensional (3D) printing in health care is one of the many innovations VA is now focused on.

In recent years, 3D printing has been used in manufacturing, architecture and other applications, including medicine. In 2017, the VHA SimLEARN National Simulation Center (NSC) and Veterans Affairs (VA) Center for Innovation (COI) began piloting evaluation of a Clinical 3D Printing Program (C3DPP) that incorporates 3D printing into a pre-operative planning/training strategy to improve operative efficiency and reduce intraoperative complications. SimLEARN also began working with the VA Puget Sound Healthcare System in Seattle, supplying a 3D printer and support to better establish this emerging technology.

Dr. Beth Ripley is a VA Puget Sound Health Care System radiologist, VA Innovation specialist and VHA 3D Printing Advisory Committee chair. She has been with VA for more than two years and was brought on board at VA Puget Sound to lead this initiative. As a practicing clinical radiologist with fellowship training in cardiovascular and body imaging, she reads x-rays, ultrasounds, computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scans of patients. She then provides written reports to ordering physicians on findings in those studies, as well as diagnoses when relevant.

As an example of 3D technology in action, Dr. Ripley said, “We are using 3D printing to create patient-specific models for pre-surgical planning in cases involving complicated 3-dimensional anatomy. This includes cases of partial nephrectomy, where a portion of a kidney containing a malignant tumor is removed, but the unaffected portion of the kidney remains in the patient.”

She explained that this requires careful planning to ensure that the tumor is removed, while not disturbing the rest of the kidney. “We create life-sized 3D models of the patient’s kidney, with the tumor, arteries, veins and ureter distinguished with different colors, which the surgeon can use to explain the proposed surgery to the patient, as well as use in the operating room as a reference during surgery.”

She explained that 3D printing can benefit both the patient and physician by helping patients more deeply understand their diagnosis in cases of cancer. “This gives them the power to ask deeper questions about their disease, as well as any proposed treatments. It improves that essential communication between patient and physician, but can also improve the communication between the patient and his or her loved ones, such as family members and friends.”

She added that it can also help improve communication between a surgeon and the operating room staff during a case.

In turn, the 3D printed models can later be used to help educate residents and medical students. “As VA is a teaching hospital, there have been residents and medical students involved in almost all of the surgical cases that we have provided patient-specific 3D printed models, and they have been actively involved in learning from the models prior to the case. In addition, we have created a few 3D printed models based on real anatomy for specific training purposes, such as a model for practicing bronchoscopy,” said Dr. Ripley.

As an Innovations Specialist, her role is to empower front line staff to “develop their innovative ideas into tangible solutions for Veterans. She explained, “Part of these duties involve helping staff to shape and communicate their ideas, build a team of stakeholders that can contribute knowledge and expertise to the project, and find the right champions within leadership to recognize the project’s potential, as well as provide resources to see it to completion. We also work to help diffuse those innovations across multiple VA medical centers.”

As the VHA 3D Printing Advisory Committee Chair, Dr. Ripley works alongside other committee members to research and discuss 3D printing applications, workflows and challenges as they pertain to VHA. “Our goal is to provide recommendations to VHA leadership to ensure that 3D printing is utilized to its full potential in the care of Veteran patients, while ensuring the highest level of safety and quality,” she said.

A statement in a recent article released by the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, called, Department of Veterans Affairs and GE Healthcare Partner to Accelerate Use of 3D Printing in Patient Care, a partnership was announced with GE Healthcare to accelerate the use of 3D imaging in health care.

“… VA Puget Sound and the Veterans Health Administration Innovators Network will integrate GE Healthcare’s advanced visualization AW VolumeShare workstations with 3D printing software across its facilities in Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Salt Lake City,” the statement read. “VA radiologists specializing in cardiology, oncology, orthopedics and other areas will use this technology and software to develop new 3D imaging approaches and techniques to deliver improved precision health care for our nation’s Veterans.”

Physicist William Pollard said, “Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.” Through its efforts to bring 3D printing technology and other innovations to medical centers, VA is striving to keep the care of Veterans at the forefront now and well into the future.

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