Emerging uses of 3D printing and manufacturing are transforming veteran care

Chief Innovation Officer Ryan Vega sees great promise in the power of technology to improve PTSD, hearing loss and more.

A neurosurgical team from the Minneapolis VA Health Care System performs deep brain stimulator (DBS) implantation surgery in November 2021. Photo credit: Department of Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ chief innovation officer is considering novel uses of new technology in the quest to continue to improve care for veterans, and one area he sees growth is point-of-care manufacturing.

“One of the market dynamics that is changing predominantly in health care is the concept of manufacturing at the point of care. It’s about using additive technology,” said Dr. Ryan Vega, director of innovation and learning at the VA health care, during an ACT-IAC conference. “If you think about traditional manufacturing, it’s subtractive. ‘Additive’ builds something layer by layer.”

Using computer-aided design (CAD) or 3D object scanners, additive manufacturing creates healthcare solutions with precise geometric shapes. These are built layer by layer using a 3D printing process, in contrast to traditional manufacturing which often requires machining or other techniques to remove excess material.

Vega explained that the rise of 3D printing in medicine has allowed the VA to create and replicate personalized care for veterans. VA launched a series of new 3D printing medical applications in March to provide advanced prosthetic care.

The agency is working to find more advanced and customizable ways to restore limb mobility and function to severely injured veterans. The VA 3D Printing Network has taken on a variety of local pilot programs, conducting autonomous research to personalize and improve care for veterans.

VA has also used 3D printing to treat hearing loss. The VA Integrated 3D Printing Network team designed and created a 3D printed stent that can be inserted into the external ear canal to prevent it from collapsing and allow sound to pass through. The device is not surgically implanted and can be easily removed by the patient.

“We were able to come up with and, in a matter of months, get a medical device developed. So you think about the idea of ​​surgery or creating a medical device at the point of care, that’s revolutionary in a way in terms of how we’re going to think about care and service for veterans,” Vega said.

VA is also developing the use of extended reality (XR), which can be used to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression, as well as in clinical applications such as pain management.

“We’re seeing the use of extended reality, whether it’s augmented reality or virtual reality, for a lot of different types of care, whether it’s virtual reality for physical therapy at home or … surgical navigation and operation,” Vega said. .

In a surgical setting, surgeons can use XR to see below the patient’s layers by using advanced computer space technology that takes a CT or MRI scan and places it over the patient in the operating room. This allows the surgeon to see below the surface before making the cut, leading to more precise and targeted interventions in the operating room.

“Those two types of emerging technologies are really growing. I think you’re going to see those markets change dramatically and have a huge impact on how we experience health care,” Vega said.

To support continuous innovation, VA is focusing on human capital development to support new healthcare solutions. VA continues to accelerate workforce training programs to ensure systems and solutions can effectively meet the agency’s mission and the needs of veterans.

Vega said it is essential that new procedures and technologies are incorporated into the training. By incorporating new care modalities, trainees can perform virtual care, telehealth, and patient monitoring.

“It’s not to play on the rhetoric of ‘You have to bring it into the workflow.’ We can develop better workflows. If we’re not pushing the solutions into the training environment, we’re going to have clinicians who aren’t ready to use these [innovations]Vega said.

Public-private and interagency partnerships will allow the VA to deliver new devices and innovations to veterans quickly. Instead of taking a technology-centric approach, the agency is building strong models of care, focusing on maintenance, and then looking to technology to enable these frameworks. Vega noted that as the venture capital model changes, the industry must design solutions that transcribe a “new standard of care,” rather than a one-size-fits-all solution.

“The core of innovation is value creation. To do that, you have to invest in your people and in the infrastructure,” Vega said. “The idea is that you can bring together the best of the private sector and government to co-design solutions that meet the mission of the agency, or joint collaborations that meet a broad perspective, benefits, delivery, digital, cyber, that’s really where you find the acceleration of innovations.

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