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VA launches collaborative 3D printing hospital network

The Department of Veterans Affairs is collaborating with a 3D printer manufacturer to encourage surgical planning and anatomical modeling for personalized healthcare.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is launching a collaborative 3D printing hospital network -- one of the first in the country -- in an effort to improve patient care and doctor preparedness.

The VA is the largest integrated healthcare system in the United States, providing care at more than 1,700 healthcare facilities that serve more than 8.76 million veterans annually.

The partnership between the VA's Center for Innovation and 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys Ltd. will equip five VA hospitals across the U.S. with 3D printers, materials and training to encourage the development of prostheses, custom orthotics and anatomical models for personalized healthcare.

The hospitals within the 3D printing hospital network would collaborate to improve surgical methods and patient care. Additionally, 3D printing would allow doctors at VA hospitals to provide personalized treatments for veterans. Using anatomical models that are unique to a patient's diagnosis can help them gain a better understanding of their treatment.

"This is so essential, because many patients don't fully understand their medical conditions," said Beth Ripley, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of radiology at the University of Washington and leader of the VA initiative. "Many times, I have been told by patients, 'I have no clue what the doctor is describing, so I have to just trust them.' We hope to make that statement a thing of the past and truly empower our patients to understand their health."

In a release, Arita Mattsoff, head of corporate social responsibility at Stratasys, based in Eden Prairie, Minn., said, "3D printing is expected to have a direct and often immediate impact on societal well-being -- with innovation having the power to dramatically shape lives and communities for the better."

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing uses a computer-aided design program to create a digital model of an object. The model is sliced into thin layers, and the printer adds successive layers of material from the bottom up until the object is finished. In healthcare, uses for 3D printing include hearing aids, scoliosis braces, and custom headphones that can monitor oxygen levels and heart rate.

The five VA hospitals in the 3D printing hospital network are located in Albuquerque, N.M.; Boston; Orlando, Fla.; San Antonio; and Seattle. It is unclear if the initiative will expand to other hospitals after the initial deployment.

Last year, the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, the University of Pittsburgh and the Rehabilitation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center collaborated for the Human Engineering Research Laboratories with the goal of using 3D printing to improve mobility and functions for people with spinal injuries or lost limbs.

The VA has also previously partnered with the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Defense to establish the country's first screening program intended to provide targeted and individualized therapies for cancer patients.

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