Orthopaedic surgeons use 3D printer to build replicas of patient bone injuries in Mackay

Surgeons at a north Queensland hospital are using a 3D printer to build life-size replicas of patients’ fractured bones.

Mackay Base Hospital is the first hospital in regional Queensland to incorporate 3D printing into patient treatment, after similar machines were introduced in Brisbane and Gold Coast hospitals.

Surgeons can input data from patient CT scans into the printer, which then takes 3-12 hours to build the bone model, depending on the size of the bone and the severity of the fracture.

While the replica is being printed, doctors can check in remotely via a webcam installed inside the machine to monitor the building progress.

Orthopaedic surgeon Jonathan Davis said having the faithful replicas before surgery would allow doctors to make decisions they otherwise would have to make in the operating theatre.

“At the moment we have CT scans and X-rays which are all 2D and quite hard to visualise,” he said.

“A 3D structure, which is what you’re dealing with in life and then obviously when you’re in the operating theatre, there’s a lot of soft tissues in the way and you only have a limited exposure of the bone.

“In this case we can isolate the bone as a whole and hold it in your hand, have a look at it from all the angles and see what we’re dealing with.”

The printer uses tightly-rolled plastic filament that is heated to a high temperature, melted and then deposited onto a printing platform one layer at a time.

The printer was purchased by the hospital for about $8,000 and shipped from The Netherlands, but printing a bone can cost as little as $10.

Having more time to plan reduces infection

Dr Davis said having the replicas available could potentially reduce surgery time, leading to a lower infection risk.

“It’s all about decreasing the surgical procedure time,” he said.

“The best way to do that is with good prior planning of the surgical procedure and really having a plan of attack before you go in and open the skin.

“The longer the skin is open, there’s numerous issues including infection and also damage to the skin and soft tissues, which we can avoid by having shortened and efficient operating times.

“From a surgical planning point of view, it will save time in terms of the time the patient may be on the operating table, because we’ll have more of a structured plan.

“If you came in, for instance, with a nasty fracture in your arm, we could then print that off.

“We could print the other side as well, the healthy side, and we could use the healthy side to really see what the normal architecture of the bone would be and use that to size and fit plates.”

3D models boost patient understanding

Patients having the chance to hold a replica of their injured bone in their hand could boost their understanding of their treatment.

“Some studies have been done previously into the consent process and whether or not a 3D printed model can increase the patient’s understanding of their condition and of their fractures,” Dr Davis said.

“It shows that really there is a definite model of 3D printing in patient education.”

The plastic used to build the bones will melt before it can be sterilised, but doctors are experimenting with different materials so the bones can be taken into the operating theatre.

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