Although Canada has long stood as a paradigm for universal healthcare, most Canadians would agree that the system still has its gaps in coverage and in care. Canadians requiring prosthetic limbs and the devices that complement them have found their insurance coverage falling tens of thousands of dollars short in helping them adequately address their disability. Hopefully, those gaps are becoming a thing of the past as developments in 3D printing make prosthetic limbs more advanced and affordable for people in Canada, and across the world.
As one Cambridge woman found after having her forearm amputated in 2012: having a disability is not cheap. While provincial insurance covered the cost of her initial prosthetic arm completely (almost $10,000), almost every upgrade and adaptation since has been out of pocket. While the base prosthesis gave her back basic functionality and mobility that she otherwise wouldn’t have, it requires a range of detachable parts for all different kinds of activities (for example biking, driving, swimming), all of which are out-of-pocket expenses. If she can’t afford a certain adaptation, she simply has to say goodbye to that part of her life. What’s more, the needs of many prosthetic users are constantly evolving. Children who must grow with prosthesis will require changing devices as they get older. Stumps from amputation require routine maintenance and a lifetime of care. Ill-fitting prosthetic devices can cause pain and discomfort in addition to opening up amputation sites and causing a serious infection risk. With advances in both 3D printing and prosthetic limb coverage, hopefully prosthesis users in the near future won’t have to choose between staying healthy, comfortable, and active and going bankrupt.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, “turns digital 3D models into solid objects by building them in layers.” The process, which has seen significant evolution in the last decade, can be used in a variety of applications. One of its most promising uses is for people requiring assistive devices, especially prosthetic limbs. After spending tens of thousands of dollars on traditional prosthesis for his young son, one man searched the Internet for alternatives. There, he found a YouTube video by a man who developed a 3D printing program for prosthetics. For just the cost of materials, about $20, he was able to provide his son with a better fitted more functional prosthetic using a 3D printer. The device is not only cheaper and lighter than traditionally manufactured prosthetic pieces, but it also took much less time to make and is personalize to his son’s body.
If every doctor specializing in prosthetics was fully equipped with 3D printing technology, their patients lives could be changed forever. This is true in countries like Canada and the United States, and maybe even more so in nations with less wealthy populations and crumbling and underfunded medical and insurance infrastructure. In Uganda, 12 prosthetic specialists are charged with serving a population of nearly 40 million. The six clinics they staff routinely run out of materials, making them unable to address anyone’s needs. Many people in the war-ravaged country need braces or full prosthetics from medical mistakes, violent conflict, and simple accidents. For one young girl born with a birth defect, without access to prosthetic limbs she was unable to engage with her peers and had to be carried around by her family in order to do anything at all.
The countries’ clinics have begun to use 3D printing and have found heartening results. Because the process is so much faster and more personalized, patients only need to spend a couple of days in the hospital instead of nearly a week. The devices are light and functional, and very little material is wasted during production. Less time in the hospital and less material wasted is less money spent, which is a big deal in every part of the world, especially in a region struggling with poverty.
In the last 15 years, technology has allowed us to do things that many of us could not imagine even 20 years ago. Today, we can maintain relationships with people across the world instantaneously. Self-driving cars are being tested. And in our pockets, we carry the collective knowledge of all of human history at our fingertips. But perhaps one of the most promising advances in technology is in a field that healthy people thankfully don’t have much cause to consider: medicine. With a few more years of evolution, hopefully the burdensome expense of disability will be a thing of the past.