3D printing is increasingly used to prep doctors for surgery. With patient-tailored models of a given surgical area, surgeons can better understand the environment that they’re getting into, ultimately reducing surgery times and improving outcomes. When the surgery involves the precarious life of a six-month old infant, preparation seems that much more important.
Drs. Michael Egnor and Elliot Duboys of Stony Brook University have relied on CAD and 3D printing to get a better understanding of their very young patient, suffering from a congenital deformity known as plagiocephaly. Plagiocephaly, or “flat head syndrome”, occurs when one of the growth plates of the skull fuses prematurely, leading to a flattened forehead, a bulge in the opposite forehead and an overall asymmetry in the skull. It’s still unclear whether the abnormality is only cosmetic or if it contributes to any cerebral development problems. Still, parents may treat plagiocephaly with a number of aids, such as specially designed helmets or mattresses, or, in the case of this infant, surgery.
What’s unique about this surgery, compared with other similar examples on 3DPI, is that part of the operation was planned over the Internet, an indication of the possible rising trend in telemedicine. The Stony Brook doctors sent the infant’s CAT scan to Medical Modelling Inc. in Golden Colorado, where a CAD model of the child’s skull was created. Dr. Duboys was able to prepare for the surgery remotely over the Internet, creating 3D images of the child’s skull as it might appear after surgery. As a result, surgeons were able to use both the virtual models and the 3D printed skull as guides for the actual procedure, allowing them to reduce surgical times dramatically and ultimately ensure the postoperative success of their tiny patient.
The work of the Stony Brook surgical team hints at the role that 3D printing can play in the growing field of telemedicine. In a given area of the world, there are only so many specialists in a specific area; however, with 3D scanning, printing and the Internet, it’s now possible for an expert in one part of the world to work with a virtual 3D model and send it to another person on another part of the planet, where they can 3D print the model for a tangible reference or to show to colleagues. This is of particular importance for remote clinics, such as the Bolivian clinic run by my family. The supply of experts for remote hospitals in impoverished regions is rather low, but, the Internet, when combined with a technology like 3D printing, may bring them just a little bit closer.