We are increasingly able to print what we need for health care. The New Yorker has a piece in its latest issue on the progress scientists and researchers have made towards creating biological structures using 3-D printers. Though we won’t be able to print complete, functioning human organs anytime soon, researchers have already found several medical applications for 3-D printers and are finding more every year. They started by using the printers to produce medical devices like splints, braces, and artificial limbs, but are increasingly finding success in printing tissues and protein matrices out of cells. The latter is the first step towards printing organs, but even the printed tissues will be hugely useful on their own:
For her part, [Harvard scientist Jennifer] Lewis is passionate about the changes that 3-D printing could bring to the pharmaceutical industry. Billions of dollars each year are spent on drug development that fails. If bioprinted tissues were readily available, experimental drugs could be tested on them to see how the drugs are metabolized and what side effects result. “We want to provide a fail-fast model,” Lewis said, “so that drugs can be assessed in 3-D human tissue and their toxic properties identified before spending money and effort in animal and human testing.”
Streamlining the drug testing process is just the start of how 3-D printers could reshape the health care industry. The ability to 3-D print things like medical tools and devices will make health care cheaper and more efficient. In one widely reported case not mentioned by the New Yorker, a father was able to design a prosthetic hand for his son using a 3-D printer that would cost only five dollars. Usually, that kind of product costs more like $20,000 to $30,000. We are already close to printing pills and drugs. When such printers become less expensive, individuals will be able to short-circuit the middlemen who help drive up health care prices (though drug abuse is also likely to rise as well, we should note).As more people gain the ability to print their own medications and materials, our health care system will start to look very, very different from its current form. That transformation could be even more intense if its joined to other technologies like Skype, which allows for digital doctors’ visits, and smartphones, which can be turned into portable medical devices. If you add all those things together, it’s possible to envision a day when every home is a pretty adequate medical center, only deficient when it comes to major procedures like surgeries. That day is still a long ways off (if it arrives). It will undoubtedly look different from all predictions, and certainly bring challenges and risks as well as benefits. But even though decentralized, tech-ed up health care is still only in its infancy (if that), will almost certainly lower the costs of care for many people, and could end up improving it. We need to do what we can to welcome that kind of innovation—something at which we have not, so far, been very good.