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 envisions new uses for new technologies in an effort to continue to improve care for veterans, and one area he sees growing is point-of-care manufacturing.
“One of the market dynamics that is changing primarily in healthcare is this concept of point-of-care manufacturing. This uses additive technology,” said Dr. Ryan Vega, Director of Innovation and Learning of VA healthcare, at an ACT-IAC conference. “If you think about traditional manufacturing, it’s subtractive. ‘Additive’ is building 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 with a 3D printing process, which contrasts with 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 VA to create and replicate personalized care for veterans. VA launched a series of new medical 3D printing applications in March to provide advanced prosthetic care.
The agency is working to find more advanced and customizable ways to restore mobility and function to limbs of veterans who have suffered serious injuries. VA’s 3D printing network has been tasked with a range of local pilot programs, conducting autonomous research to personalize and improve care for veterans.
VA has also used 3D printing to treat hearing loss. VA’s 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. The device is not surgically implanted and can be easily removed by the patient.
“We were able to propose and, in a few months, obtain a developed medical device. So you think about the idea of surgery or manufacturing a medical device at the point of care, that’s in some ways revolutionary in terms of how we’re going to think about care and services for the elderly fighters,” 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 management pain.
“We are seeing the use of extended reality, whether augmented or virtual, for a whole host of different types of care delivery, whether it’s virtual reality for home physiotherapy or.. . the surgical navigation and operation,” Vega said. .
In a surgical setting, surgeons can use X-ray to see beneath the layers of the patient using advanced computer spatial technology that takes a CT or MRI scan and overlays it on the patient in the operating room. This allows the surgeon to see below the surface before making the cut, allowing for more precise and targeted interventions in the operating room.
“These two types of emerging technologies are growing. I think you’re going to see these markets change dramatically and have a big impact on how we experience healthcare,” Vega said.
To support continuous innovation, VA focuses on developing human capital 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 veteran needs.
Vega said it was essential that new procedures and technologies were incorporated into the training. By integrating new care modalities, trainees can perform virtual care, telehealth, and patient monitoring.
“It’s not about playing on the rhetoric of ‘You have to fit into the workflow.’ We can develop better workflows. If we don’t push the solutions into the training environment, we’re going to have physicians who aren’t ready to use these [innovations]”Vega said.
Private-public and interagency partnerships will allow VA to rapidly deliver new devices and innovations to veterans. Instead of taking a tech-centric approach, the agency builds robust models of care, focusing on sustaining and then turning to technology to activate those frameworks. Vega noted that as the venture capital model evolves, the industry should design solutions that transcribe a “new standard of care,” as opposed to a point solution.
“The heart of innovation is the creation of value. 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 private sector and government to co-design solutions that meet the agency’s mission, or joint collaborations that meet a broad perspective – so benefits, delivery, digital , cyber – that’s really where you find the acceleration of innovations.