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GE Healthcare will provide the VA with software that can translate medical scans into printable 3D files. Above, a model of a fistula is readied for printing. (GE Healthcare)

Dr. Beth Ripley would like you to know that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is way more innovative than you probably think. But she’s biased — both as a pioneer in 3D printing and a radiologist at the VA’s Puget Sound Health Care System in the Seattle region.

Dr. Beth Ripley holds a model of a 3D printed kidney with a cancerous tumor. (Photo by Chris Pacheco)

Ripley is a driving force behind the VA’s rollout of 3D modeling software from GE Healthcare, under a new partnership announced this week. The technology takes arcane radiological scans and translates them into printable files to become plastic organs, bones and tumors that physicians can use in planning patient care and treatment.

For years, Ripley and others in the medical field have been using 3D printing, but the new software should save time and make the technology more accessible.

“One of the most time-critical steps is translating medical imaging data into the 3D printing file,” she said. “I’ve spent 10 hours or more painstakingly going through data sets and translating them over.” Using the 3D modeling software, that process should be reduced to minutes.

There are two big reasons why 3D printing for planning surgeries has been slow to take off.

  • It’s maddeningly difficult to read a CT scan or MRI. That’s, in part, why radiologists often spend six years following medical school to become interpreters of these anatomical portraits.
  • Most radiologists have never encountered a CAD or STL file, the standard formats for 3D modeling and printing. “None of this is anything they taught us in med school,” said Dr. Ripley.

People have been predicting that 3D printing will revolutionize health care for over a decade. Others have dismissed it as a fad. Because of the time and difficulty involved, the technology was initially seen as a way to help physicians plan for rare surgeries. Mayo Clinic, one of the early adopters of 3D printing in hospitals, first used it to plan the separation of conjoined twins in 2006.

But as 3D modeling and printing have become easier, hospitals increasingly see it as a tool for any tricky operation, such as surgery on the heart, a complex organ that moves constantly. Outside of surgical planning, physicians are using the technology to create custom surgical tools, prosthetics and stents, among other applications.

For veterans, Ripley sees 3D printing as a way to improve outcomes for military-specific surgeries, including repetitive stress injuries from jumping out of helicopters and blast traumas from explosions. Physicians can use the 3D model to prepare for surgery and as a prop to show a patient their plan of action.

“Imagine holding your own heart,” Ripley said. “It really gives a sense of security and ownership of the process back to the patient.”

Unlike traditional 3D printing software, which emerged from the engineering world, GE’s tool was designed with doctors in mind. That could help spread the adoption of 3D printing, which is currently used by an estimated 3 percent of large hospitals and research institutions, according to research firm Gartner. The VA has 20 hospitals that can 3D print, Ripley said.

Right now, a few GE Healthcare advanced workstations with 3D printing software are on a loading dock, ready to be deployed at Dr. Ripley’s own VA network in the Seattle area. The technology is also headed to VA centers in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Salt Lake City. Under the research agreement, the VA will provide feedback to GE Healthcare on the technology.

As for Ripley’s claim about the VA’s innovative spirit, she has a point. The nation’s largest health care provider also gave us the cardiac pacemaker, the barcode system for medications and the nicotine patch.

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