Stratasys Blog
3D printed orthotic fitting
Gary with his occupational therapist Mary, testing fit of prototype orthotic - 3D printed with Stratasys technology.

Engineering the First Nationwide 3D Printing Network for the Veterans Health Administration – Part 1

Health is more than an absence of sickness—it’s being able to do the things that make you happy and define who you are.  A fisherman that cannot fish due to arm loss, an outdoorsman unable to chop wood from a hand contracture, or a runner’s inability to run due to heart condition – they’re all far from an optimal state of well-being. But what if you could design a custom health solution for each one?  By combining the power of 3D printing with the creativity of VA employees, there may indeed be a way.

3D printed orthotic example
Original hand crafted orthotic by Mary.
Orthotic 3D digital design file
Digital design file of smoothed orthotic ready for 3D printing.

3D printers create objects from digital designs by laying down extremely thin layers of material one at a time on top of each other, eventually building a three-dimensional structure. These printers can create unique parts customized for each Veteran – even reproducing near-exact anatomical models. For instance, a heart replica is recreated from medical imaging data such as CT or MRI scans. This physical heart can be placed in a doctor’s hands so that he or she can make the best medical decisions possible. Rehabilitation engineers, prosthetists, and therapists can use 3D printing to create custom assistive technology devices, orthotics, prostheses and other tools – enabling Veterans to do things they love and opening doors for otherwise restricted activities.

The Veterans Affairs Center for Innovation (VACI) recognizes the incredible power of this technology to improve the health and well-being of Veterans. With this in mind, VACI just unveiled a plan to connect VA hospitals across the country in the first nationwide medical 3D printing network. This opportunity is fueled by a collaboration with Stratasys, one of the largest manufacturers of 3D printers in the world. 3D printing technology is already used in a handful of VA Hospitals, including Minneapolis, MN; Hampton and Richmond, VA; Tampa, FL; Manhattan, NY and Pittsburgh, PA. Still, the majority of VA hospitals do not have 3D printers and very few VA employees are trained in the technology. Our collaboration with Stratasys addresses this problem by increasing 3D printer access and creating an integrated 3D printing effort across the VA hospital network. Working together to maximize the impact of 3D printing for Veterans’ health, newer technologies and solutions will also emerge.

Stratasys has provided 3D printers, materials and technical support to five VA Medical Centers across the US:  Seattle, Albuquerque, San

3D toggle switch adapters
Before and after installing a 3D printed toggle switch adapters.

Antonio, Boston, and Orlando. A national leadership team of VA employees with diverse 3D printing expertise will work closely across these sites to create 3D printing programs and training. By installing printers across broad geographies, opportunities now exist for other VA hospitals to benefit from this network. Digital 3D files can be created at a Veteran’s local hospital and later sent to any network 3D printer.  This generates enhanced collaboration and consultation throughout VA hospitals, meaning Veterans may no longer need to travel as extensively for expert opinions outside their local hospital.

The overarching vision for 3D printing is for universal availability at all 168 VA hospitals across the country, accelerating development of personalized healthcare, tools, and technologies for Veterans and their families.

You can read more about the VA’s current work in 3D printing at the McGuire VA hospital in Richmond, VA in this blogpost.

Beth Ripley

Beth Ripley

Beth Ripley, MD, PhD, is a staff radiologist at the Seattle Division of the VA Puget Sound Healthcare System, and an Assistant Professor of Radiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Art History from Stanford University and her MD and PhD in Neurosciences from University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. She completed radiology residency training and a cardiovascular imaging fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and a body imaging fellowship at the University of Washington.

As an innovation specialist with the VA Center for Innovation, Dr. Ripley collaborates with a talented and diverse group of physicians, orthotists, prosthetists, engineers, administrators and information technologists across the VA system who—together— are reimagining the meaning of individualized patient care. Amongst other things, the VA 3D Printing Leadership Team hopes to understand how patient-specific 3D printing can improve the safety and quality of diagnosis and interventions such as surgery and minimally invasive procedures, improve patient education, shared decision-making, and informed consent and improve how patients engage with their surroundings.

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