Healthcare accessibility is a pressing issue, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Accessibility is a multi-pronged concept with four key components: coverage, services, timeliness, and workforce. When one of these components is missing, the rest of the system becomes inefficient.
Technology has been able to help solve certain healthcare accessibility issues, particularly those related to providing essential services and offering those services in a timely manner. 3D technologies, in particular, are well suited to the task. 3D technologies — including holography, 3D printing, and virtual reality — can amplify the doctor-patient connection without raising costs or making extraordinary demands of the healthcare workforce.
From providing new methods for conducting healthcare appointments to improving diagnostics, new technologies promise improved quality of life for patients with a vast array of health needs. Here’s a look at some of what 3D technology is currently offering the world of healthcare.
3D Printing Provides Access to Scarce Resources
3D printing is the more fantastical of the technologies improving healthcare access, and it’s never been more at the forefront of our minds. People with access to 3D printers are right now using them to print medical face shields and quickly providing protective equipment to frontline workers battling the COVID-19 pandemic. The work seems simple, but it will save the lives of doctors and nurses caring for patients who have tested positive for the virus. The 3D printing industry has seen and issued many calls to action for those capable of responding, not only with face shields but also for medical device components including oxygen valves.
The response to COVID-19 demonstrates the value of 3D printing for the medical community. When an immediate response is needed for relatively simple items, 3D printing can respond almost immediately. All they need is the correct template and materials, and in many cases, the templates are freely available online.
Of course, machine parts and face shields aren’t the only focus of 3D printing in medical applications. Among other hot topics in medical usage is the development of 3D printed organs. Bioprinting addresses healthcare accessibility in two ways. First, these living organs can be 3D printed to order and thus potentially be used to keep up with the demand for transplants. Demand for organs is currently much higher than availability, and 20 people die each day waiting for an available organ. Second, the technology could lead to cheaper transplant costs, which is important for patients who are removed from candidate lists due to their lack of means to pay, either for the procedure or the anti-rejection drugs needed post-op.
As of now, 3D printed organs are still years away from full viability and widespread availability. Most potential organ substitution products are still in the exploratory phase and aren’t yet ready for the testing required before they can be used in clinical trials.
How 3D Technology Improves Diagnostics
Diagnostics is at the forefront of the issue of healthcare accessibility. When people can’t get access to the tests and specialists they need to identify their problems, they’re unable to start down the road of treatment and recovery. The problem is a pressing one, particularly in rural areas with few resources where health service access is already sparse.
Virtual reality is changing diagnostics to help more people access care. The use of virtual health care is particularly helpful for individuals who can’t get to a clinic because of either geography or mobility restrictions. Telehealth is already providing this kind of benefit, but high definition 3D telemedicine (HD3D) could be the next frontier because it offers more than videolink contact. HD3D medicine offers a sense of immersion that can lead to better health outcomes for patients. Improvements in 3D technologies as well as broadband access could make this possible in the near future.
3D technology is also improving diagnostics through medical imaging to the point where the technology is a part of radiology culture. The use of 3D tomosynthesis or 3D mammography over traditional 2D mammography provides radiologists a better look at breast tissue and improves cancer detection. 3D mammography makes the biggest difference in patients with dense breasts or who are otherwise high risk because it lowers the risk of misinterpreting the images.
Soon, new 3D technologies like holography will go beyond these 3D images and provide truly accurate imaging in less time and using less labor. Unlike 3D radiology, holography can also be used in telemedicine and other remote work to further improve the patient experience.
New Technology Presents New Questions
Healthcare is always a huge beneficiary of new technology because technology makes it more efficient to deliver quality care to more people. Even so, these technologies present new issues. Even the most innocuous advancements like the Electronic Healthcare Record (EHR) present ethical questions about what role we should allow technology to play in medicine.
3D technology presents pressing issues in medical ethics. Some of the most concerning questions include the risk of life or quality of life in clinical trials, the cost and accessibility of new technologies, and, of course, the ever-present privacy concerns.
Bioprinting organs brings up the most existential questions. 3D printing organs would solve several issues by eliminating the need for a human organ market and solving issues related to recipient rejection. However, it’s not yet clear what this technology encompasses, and these kinds of innovations don’t follow the traditional path of progress in medicine. Additionally, it may still leave the issue of affordability in place. It seems likely that these products would still be limited to wealthy subgroups living in developed countries. There are also issues related to who should own the blueprint for an organ and what role intellectual property can play within it.
Technology Empowers Doctors and Patients
3D technologies push boundaries and ask important questions. They are also making headway in healthcare delivery by making healthcare services more accessible, even if affordability may still be an issue. One of the most important effects it will h
ave, however, will be its ability to empower patients.
New technologies like holography and 3D printing can improve the patient-healthcare provider relationship, which is one of the pillars of patient empowerment. By providing more meaningful connections, even from afar, it is easier to build trust between doctors and patients and overcome the communication barrier to seek help.