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  • Writer's picturePaul White

3D printing electronic health devices on prescription?


“Today’s 3D printers are great for building plastic stuff, things like toys and musical instruments and even shoes. Some can also print metal objects, like car parts and jewellery and, well, guns. But Jennifer Lewis helped create a new kind of printer, one that can print electronics, such as, ultimately, hearing aids and other wearables.”

New Consumer Opportunities in Healthcare

Advances in 3D printing capabilities combined with affordability, could impact traditional consumer models in a potentially significant and positive way, especially for the public service providers such as those delivering health and social care.

One particular area of activity that could most benefit from this technology is with regard to the utilisation of health monitoring, condition management and assisted living devices, designed to improve the ability to monitor and support patients and their carers in better managing conditions ‘closer to home’.

Presently, most health monitoring and condition management is achieved through tele-health / tele-care (contracted) services, with which a wide variation across the country in the range of services, and technologies available exists. Patients moving from one area to another frequently find services that were available in one, are not available in another.

Procurement of tele-health and tele-care services has also proved to be problematic. As well as being a lengthy and complicated process, contracts are also implemented typically under arrangements within which it is difficult to innovate, change or extend service offerings.

This has had a negative impact on the rate of adoption and utilisation of these services across health and social care service provision, and critically patients, carers and service providers are all missing out on some potentially very significant benefits.

Establishing a Basis for Major Change?

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This demand is somewhat exacerbated by the fact that the largest proportion of investment in the devices and technologies is by those classified as ‘the worried well’, individuals with a proactive attitude to their own well-being.

This means that for those responsible for health and social care service provision there is already a user community with which to engage, in the development and proofing of new digital services. One that is most likely willing to help shape new services, not least because they themselves could possibly have a need for these services later in life!

Here in the UK, NHS England has also very recently announced that it intends to establish some new test beds across to trial new technologies, digital services and other innovations. Tony Young, NHS England’s clinical director for innovation, said the work was consistent with NHS England’s Five Year Forward View, highlighting:

‘We are looking for test beds, four to six areas in the NHS with populations of around 1m because we want to be a good place where you can come and test and trial. There will be funding to help make that happen. We are looking for willing clinicians able to test and trial anything.’

Healthy Heart

But they are not ahead of the curve, and there are a couple of problems that have already materialised:

  1. The owners of the various technologies have already identified the commercial value of the data their devices produce and are in the process of realising this value. Public service access to this data is likely to come at a cost consequently, and one that might be much more difficult to qualify return on investment from.

  2. The plethora of device and solutions providers is creating a complex multiplicity of data silos and apps with which to engage. This is creating degrees of complexity in the range of interface solutions and methods required to obtain some unified access to information in a cost effective manner.

The combinations of the above have great potential to significantly impede public service realisation of the benefits of new technologies innovations. Critically, the establishment of a common approach on data interoperability standards and informatics systems, that are better capable of utilising the data generated from emerging health and well-being devices becomes something more significantly difficult to achieve.

3D Printing of Electronic Devices – Offers a New Way Forward?

As 3D printing technology advances and innovations in the ability to print electrical circuits matures, the potential inhibitors and barriers to being able to exploit the benefits of the technologies become easier to overcome. Specifically from a public sector perspective, because ownership of the device simplifies the ability to establish data interoperability, integration and accessibility standards and potential for reduced implementation time frames.

It establishes also the basis

Imagine the difference when devices and wearables that can help a patient, their carers and / or health professionals in the management of conditions can be produced, relatively easily, on a as needed basis, straight from 3D printer, maybe even within the hour and dispensed from the local pharmacy?

Building on this scenario, it could be that a device design library, hosting essentially templates ready to be printed, could be centrally managed by the central healthcare standards or management organisations, and 3D printers within service provider organisations would access this library to obtain the information it needed to produce a new device.

Entrepreneurs and innovators working with and within health and social care, could submit new designs and solutions templates to a service overseeing the library, for validating, testing and formal release, into the library to become widely available to all healthcare organisations for use.

A health SDK would set out standards for data interoperability and more e.g. Wifi / Internet connectivity / security protocols etc., data transmissions and most importantly the frameworks addressing how monitoring data is to be incorporated into existing healthcare provider systems, or at least made available in a manner that permitted pro-active use in the management of a patients condition.


In 2011, I co-authored a business paper that examined potentially positive impact of moving to a pro-active service model, especially when this was implemented in a manner that extended support beyond just the patient, and onto the patients personal care circle. Those family and friends that make up the 7 million carers here in the UK alone.


These technologies delivering only a modest increase in the ability to better support interventions being made by carers, looking after a small percentage of 15 million patients suffering from one or more long-term chronic conditions, translating into:

  1. reductions in the number of visits to GP’s;

  2. and more importantly less hospital admissions,

Establishes the potential for annual cost savings and efficiency gains in excess of £2.5bn per year across the UK, and this would be just for starters.

Tele-health in particular has not had an easy start here in the UK, mHealth is increasing, but for the moment remains mostly focused on improving clinician access to information on the move. If this does not change then the ambition to deliver significant cost and efficiency savings will remain just an ambition, and most importantly the opportunity to transform the health and social care delivery model will stay out of reach.

3D printing of electronic healthcare devices could open up new ways of working and engaging with patients and importantly their carers, if the service can take ownership and the right degree of control over it, without impeding the ability for innovation to prosper, then the transformation could potentially begin in earnest, with maybe the service could additionally benefit from the licencing revenues device designs used outside of the NHS!

Its still early days but nonetheless, an opportunity worthy perhaps of some investment, of at least time if not money?

Article Links

The Internet of Anything: The 3-D Printer That Can Spit Out Custom Electronics | WIRED.

NHS England may trial equipping patients with wearable tech


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