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Reforming Delivery
Patient, Print Thyself

Do-it-yourself 3-D printing is good for more than a hobby: it can also allow ordinary Americans to get medical supplies and devices at low prices. The New York Times reports on the increasing popularity of 3-D printed prosthetic limbs for children. With one in every 1,000 children born with missing fingers (post-birth accidents only augment those numbers), there’s a big demand for prosthetics, but traditional ways of getting one are expensive:

State-of-the-art prosthetic replacements are complicated medical devices, powered by batteries and electronic motors, and they can cost thousands of dollars. Even if children are able to manage the equipment, they grow too quickly to make the investment practical. So most do without, fighting to do with one hand what most of us do with two.

E-nable, an online volunteer organization, aims to change that. Founded in 2013 by Jon Schull, the group matches children like Dawson in need of prosthetic hands and fingers with volunteers able to make them on 3-D printers. Designs may be downloaded into the machines at no charge, and members who create new models share their software plans freely with others.

The materials for a 3-D-printed prosthetic hand can cost as little as $20 to $50, and some experts say they work just as well, if not better, than much costlier devices. Best of all, boys and girls usually love their D.I.Y. prosthetics.

This story is only a taste of what 3-D printing and other technologies could do to make health care cheaper and more efficient. 3-D printing will disrupt existing supply medical supply changes, cutting down on the power of big medical institutions and their middlemen to jack up prices. Procedures or medical products that once cost thousands of dollars will cost less than a hundred. In the grand scheme of U.S. health care spending, of course, a price reduction like that may not seem like a lot. But for a middle class family with a tight budget and a high-deductible plan or other kinds of cost-sharing requirements, it could make a really important difference.

When you pair that kind of cheap technology with, for example, systems that monitor costly chronic conditions more efficiently, we are talking about noticeably lower costs for quite a number of people.

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