Imagine you are at the dentist, and you are in need of a crown. Many of us have been through this routine. You know what to expect. The dentist finishes grinding your existing tooth down, and messy molds and impressions are made. A temporary crown is fashioned and placed, and you are sent home with restrictions on what you can eat. Your new “tooth” is fashioned at some obscure dental lab, and after days or even weeks you return to the dentist for the fitting of your permanent crown. 

But this time is different. This time your mouth is scanned both pre and post prep using a 3D imaging camera, and while you sit patiently in the chair for 20 minutes, your new permanent tooth is printed in a room down the hall. For this visit there are no messy molds, temporary fittings or inconvenient return visits. 3D printing technology has made this a “one and done” visit.

It may sound far fetched, but the technology exists today to make it happen. The only lagging factor turns out to be a legal one – simply waiting for the FDA to start approving technologies like this for use in the world of modern medicine.

One of the most fascinating areas I visited during the Consumer Electronics Show last month in Las Vegas was the exhibit area dedicated to 3D printing. This incredible technology represents one of the most revolutionary concepts for modern medicine. Already today it is being utilized in the creation of surgical guides and other tools to assist in the treatment of a patient, but the day is not far off where 3D printing will be creating physical implants and prosthetics that will revolutionize medical care. 

The biggest personal surprise for me was the advancement in materials used for this process. These machines are not simply printing plastic. They now employ very strong and long lasting materials such as advanced polymers, composites and even titanium alloy. One exhibitor had numerous examples on display, including a titanium alloy jaw and a working motorcycle whose primary parts were all created with 3D printing technology.

Titanium jaw description

This technology is already having some impact, as 3D printing can be used today in prototyping and development processes. Imagine, however the possibility of this technology for the patients we serve in the workers' compensation arena when it can directly produce the needed medical device. The ability to create custom solutions for patients will be much closer to the point of treatment than previously possible. A tooth created on site, or even a prosthetic limb created nearby within a day; the improvement in the ability to provide immediate care will be a huge advantage for the patient of the future. Costs will also be lowered in the process, because 3D scanning and replication technologies will supplant much of the expensive human skill required of these services today. 

3D systems will eventually provide custom implant devices for joint replacement, prosthetic limbs, and much more. The technology is available today; but as is the norm for our industry both legal oversight and social acceptance are holding back the possibilities for now. None of what I describe has yet been approved by the FDA, and it will take a culture shift within the medical community to accept what may now be possible. 

But change is inevitable, and it will be for the better. 3D printing represents a paradigm shift for the medical community. For workers' comp it means that both the industry and the patient will be winners. More timely care that provides better customized solutions will mean injured workers will heal faster and more completely, and it will all be possible at lower costs for those who are paying the bill. 

And for that result, I would say 3D technology can really print a pretty picture.

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