Heriot-Watt Showcases Potential of 3D Printing Applications in the Healthcare Industry at Arab Health 2021

Heriot-Watt University Dubai is exhibiting the potential of advanced manufacturing techniques, like 3D printing, in supporting the healthcare sector at Arab Health this week. The 3D printer is actively printing on display at the Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital stand, where visitors can also see on display replicas of a patient’s pelvis and clavicle (developed for an orthopaedic surgery based on CT-scans).

Since 2019, a four-member team from Heriot-Watt’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, has been helping the orthopaedic department at the hospital by producing highly accurate 3D models (such as the pelvis) based on CT-scans which has been helpful in preparing surgeons and their patients for complex surgeries. Their engineering expertise is required to process the images, preparing them for 3D printing and to ensure high quality 3D prints/replicas are produced.

Commenting on the initiative, Prof Tadhg O’Donovan, Head of the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University Dubai said, “The ability to examine a complex medical issue in detail, to actually hold a replica in your hands and visualise the potential impact of treatment is extremely fascinating and empowering. We envision a future where a surgeon conducting a routine or non-routine CT or MRI scan will also be able to see a 3D-printed patient-specific surgical model within a few hours, especially for practice on the preoperative model before performing complex procedures. This will not only speed up the process of the intervention, but also improve patient satisfaction and recovery time.”

The Heriot-Watt team empowers and enables the orthopaedic specialists in designing a more effective and accurate surgical plan by providing them with a visual and tactile reference models. 3D printing also enhances the communication of complex surgical procedures to the patient and their families with more ease, which is crucial in reducing their anxieties and gaining their consent. 

Prof O’Donovan further added, “As 3D printers become more accessible and affordable, cross-disciplinary collaboration (between healthcare and engineering) is essential to realise the full potential of the technology to benefit patients. Engineers, particularly mechanical engineers, and surgeons might not appear to be the most natural of partners at first, but when they join forces, they have the potential to create an array of medical innovations that can help people lead longer, healthier lives. By applying engineering principles and technologies to the study of medicine, we can create more pioneering approaches to diagnose, treat and prevent complex medical issues

Although 3D printing has been around for over three decades, its application in the medical sector has been largely underutilised compared to other sectors such as construction and manufacturing. Currently, the medical sector’s use of 3D printing is still emerging. In the context of the UAE and the wider region, 3D printing is yet to be fully exploited despite its massive potential. 

Relying on MRI or CT-scans might not be sufficient in the case of complex surgeries. Gaining an in-depth view of the specific anatomy is not only helpful in pre-operative planning, but also during the various phases of the intervention. Medical fields such as orthopaedics have seen more success with 3D printing as it mainly involves bone structures, offering clear visibility and contrast. For instance, 3D printing makes it possible to test in advance a specific surgical procedure on a replica such as applying screws or testing the drilling path, which can ensure a more successful procedure as well as reduce the rate of re-operation.

“Everything we do is underpinned by our strategy of ‘Shaping Tomorrow Together’ which explains how we should work to transfer our values from concepts to tangible activity. Because ‘Building Flourishing Communities’ is part of our strategy, we strongly believe that communities flourish when they are inspired, connected, collaborative and valued. Moreover, our core purpose is to create and exchange knowledge that benefits society. Recognising the challenges of our rapidly changing world is part of our purpose, and so, we continue to apply our knowledge and expertise to areas that can help us serve our local communities better. We not only want to create exciting new opportunities for ourselves, but we also want to make the most out of them for the very communities we live and work in,” concluded Prof O’Donovan. 

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