China’s Take on 3D Printing in Healthcare

The rise of additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has transformed numerous industries across the globe. Healthcare in particular has the potential for disruption, as 3D printing has, and will continue to, provide new areas of cost savings, efficiency, and convenience across the medical industry.[1]

3D Printing in China: A Potential Cure-All Solution?

As China continues to move from a manufacturing to a services economy, the need for innovation has become increasingly important. Additionally, China’s growing population has also increased its need for better, and cheaper, healthcare. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has increased its investments in research & development and innovation in the healthcare space – particularly in 3D printing.

Not only does Asia have the most “growth potential for 3-D printing”[2] due to its large patient population, it also has strong political backing, as a surge in supportive government policies have proved. In 2017, “institutions in China spent $1.1 billion on 3D printing,”[3] thus paving the way for customized implants that can reduce both use of materials and the likelihood of body rejection.[4] Additionally, 3D organs are an effective alternative for long organ transplant lists and can enable access to treatments even in remote areas of China.[5]

[6]

Large hospitals in China are already benefiting from 3D modeling ahead of complex surgeries, which “allows surgeons [to] reduc[e] time on the operating table”[7] and enables them to further customize their approach. Each implant or prosthetic can be 3D printed to fit each patient’s individual needs, which is not the case with mass-produced prosthetics. While a customized product usually means a surge in price, 3D printing has allowed patients to benefit from a total cost reduction of up to 70%.[8]

The Future of 3D Printing in China’s Healthcare System

In 2015, the MIIT launched its “Made In China 2025” initiative to foster advancements in R&D, and to push China up the global production chain. [9]  Two years later, to further solidify China’s competitive edge in this space, another initiative to grow the local 3D printing industry was launched with the goal of growing Chinese 3D printing brands to $3 billion by 2020.[10]

In an attempt to capitalize on the brain-power of international organizations, Shanghai Children’s Medical Center and Belgium-based Materialise are collaborating on a charitable initiative to provide free medical care for children with heart disease from China’s under-developed western regions. On average, families currently pay between RMB 80-100,000 (USD $11,600-$14,500) for a heart operation, but 3D printing will reduce these costs dramatically.[11] With the help of Materalise, the first pediatric 3D medical research facility was opened in China in 2015.[12]

Further, the National Innovation Center was established to increase collaboration between local firms and research groups within universities to “help address technological bottlenecks that impede commercial applications of 3D printing.”[13]

As China continues to grow into its leading role as one of the key players in the bioprinting space, it must focus on further developing and enforcing industry standards and certifications. Safety issues will be a key topic for both private and commercial users.[14]

To stay in the lead in its application of additive manufacturing in healthcare, the MIIT should consider how best to gather data on the outcomes of its various initiatives, as well as how to best analyze this information.

Finally, the focus on collaboration, but also differentiation, will become a key question. Innovation may speed up substantially through partnerships with international organizations but may also erode China’s competitive advantage.

Additional Thoughts

Finally, two questions warrant consideration. First – what are the long-term effect of the 3D printed products on patient health? While we can observe their effectiveness in the short-term, we have yet to see how our bodies respond in the longer-term.

Additionally, what are the effects on our global healthcare systems and economy?

 

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[1] Pando, A. (2018). How 3D Printing Could Change The Health Industry. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2018/01/17/how-3d-printing-could-change-the-health-industry/#737766a551ce

[2] Gross, A. (2016). Growth of Medical 3-D Printing in Asia | MedTech Intelligence. [online] MedTech Intelligence. Available at: https://www.medtechintelligence.com/feature_article/growth-medical-3-d-printing-asia/

[3] Jennings, R. (2018). China Lays Groundwork For Asian, World Lead In 3D Printing. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphjennings/2018/02/01/china-lays-groundwork-for-asian-world-lead-in-3d-printing/#7e12d1177f54 [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[4] Ericson, A. (2018). 3D Printing Brings New Things to Healthcare. [online] Accenture.com. Available at: https://www.accenture.com/us-en/blogs/blogs-how-3d-printing-revolutionize-healthcare

[5] Gross, A. (2016). Growth of Medical 3-D Printing in Asia | MedTech Intelligence. [online] MedTech Intelligence. Available at: https://www.medtechintelligence.com/feature_article/growth-medical-3-d-printing-asia/

[6] Inkwood Research. (2018). 3D Printing Market | Global Trend, Size, Analysis Report 2017-2025. [online] Available at: https://www.inkwoodresearch.com/reports/3d-printing-market/ [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018]

[7] Ericson, A. (2018). 3D Printing Brings New Things to Healthcare. [online] Accenture.com. Available at: https://www.accenture.com/us-en/blogs/blogs-how-3d-printing-revolutionize-healthcare [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[8] Pando, A. (2018). How 3D Printing Could Change The Health Industry. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2018/01/17/how-3d-printing-could-change-the-health-industry/#737766a551ce

[9] Csis.org. (2018). [online] Available at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/made-china-2025

[10] Jennings, R. (2018). China Lays Groundwork For Asian, World Lead In 3D Printing. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphjennings/2018/02/01/china-lays-groundwork-for-asian-world-lead-in-3d-printing/#7e12d1177f54

[11] English.cctv.com. (2018). China Breakthroughs: 3D printing pumps new life for young heart patients – CCTV News – CCTV.com English. [online] Available at: http://english.cctv.com/2017/08/21/ARTIEaqFETl08rgmbYsVaeH9170821.shtml

[12] Gross, A. (2016). Growth of Medical 3-D Printing in Asia | MedTech Intelligence. [online] MedTech Intelligence. Available at: https://www.medtechintelligence.com/feature_article/growth-medical-3-d-printing-asia/

[13] Usa.chinadaily.com.cn. (2018). ‘3D printing is booming’ – USA – Chinadaily.com.cn. [online] Available at: http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2017-08/21/content_30910283.htm

[14] Jennings, R. (2018). China Lays Groundwork For Asian, World Lead In 3D Printing. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphjennings/2018/02/01/china-lays-groundwork-for-asian-world-lead-in-3d-printing/#7e12d1177f54

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11 thoughts on “China’s Take on 3D Printing in Healthcare

  1. For the reasons you mentioned, I agree that 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize medical transplants in China and across the globe. However, you bring up a very important question surrounding patient outcomes in the long term. How can we continue to push this revolutionary technology forward when the stakes are so high? When a patient has few remaining choices it may be easier to make the decision to pursue this option, but in other circumstances who would be willing to risk the long term outcomes? I would be interested to see if 3D printing will eventually be used for non-vital organs (such as bringing back someones second kidney) or if the invasive nature of the procedures will keep the technology as a last resort? Either way, the continued pursuit of success in this space will hopefully result in great cost savings and thousands of saved lives.

  2. Thanks for sharing, really enjoyed reading this. It’s hard to determine the long-term effects on patient health and I think that’s a very valid point to raise considering medical devices can theoretically stay with a person for the rest of their life. I think Alex raises good points above, so I’ll look at the second question you raise re: effects on global health and systems. The trade-off, or lack of a trade-off in this case, between cost and customization is one of the great benefits to 3-D printing. An additional benefit that I hope can arise out of this megatrend is the idea of on-site production of these devices in locations in cities and remote areas. Having access to this type of technology without burdening smaller hospitals with high-cost inventory (a lot of implants, etc. are sold in kits because size is unknown until the patient is identified) could be a game-changer both in China and in the rest of the world.

  3. To continue on the discussion that Alex and Mike have started, what I actually see here is an interesting opportunity for China; having been historically a net importer of technology and innovation, perhaps this push will turn the tables? And given larger population size, China may find cure for rare diseases that we can’t treat in the West simply because we only have 2,000 patients a year that suffer from them (CM/IL discussion from marketing…), be it with bio-3D printing or not…If China is able to figure out how, they may change not only perceptions about it, but change the game for its and global economy entirely.

  4. Caro – thanks for a super interesting article. I must admit I had NEVER heard of 3D organs as an effective alternative transplants. I am very curious to see what the long term effects of having 3D printing. It seems that this is a fantastic option for people who are in rural areas, who are on long lists for organ transplants, or who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access a human organ transplant. While this is a totally new concept to me, it does seem that 3D printing could drastically change the medical transplant field across the world. However, as I said by concern is that we still do not know the risks of the long term outcomes. In order to save lives and also save costs, this seems like a fascinating option and I am happy to hear that it is being pursued. Thanks again for opening my eyes to something completely new!

  5. Thanks for the insightful comments on this emerging technology in healthcare. I agree with everyone above the 3D printing has incredible potential as an alternative to living and deceased-donor organ transplants. Organ donation is a scarce resource that is allocated based on the recipient’s ability pay for, care for, and many times convince others to donate (at least with kidney donation). Overcoming these barriers obviously favors the educated and affluent and disqualifies an alarming number of disadvantaged suffering patients. 3D printing technology has the potential to even the playing field. I hope China’s MIIT can make it happen.

  6. Thanks for this insightful article. In term of the long-term vs. short term, although we don’t have enough data to understand the long-term effects to a patient, whether the body will reject or integrate with these organs, to some patients this 3D alternative could be an only hope to worth trying. It may sound wrong but some time we can only improve by actually using it. In a culture, a body should remain wholesome, there is limited population willing to participate with organ donation program, although this number is growing. As largest population in the world, there is still high demand with very limited supply. At least I am hopeful this is another way to stop the black market of organ supplies.

  7. Caro, thank you for sharing! I enjoyed reading the article so much.
    My first impression is that if we are going to live in a world where to can easily swap organs, how many years are humans going to live?!
    This technology is awesome and will solve a lot of problems, and if I or my family or somebody close were the patient I would definitely choose to receive the treatment, but at the same time, I wonder if we all live to 200 years old, what would the world look like?!

  8. Hi Caro,

    Great essay. I agree that additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has a huge value proposition for improving healthcare and reducing cost. Another way in which it can be used is in producing model systems. This may be more realistic in the short-term. 3D printing allows for intricate buildup of organ-like model systems that can closely mimic the physiological environment of the human body. This allows for the exquisite tuning and testing of therapeutic interventions for organ-specific diseases. The potential benefit is huge, reducing cost of testing drugs and avoiding using animal models.

    As a future step, moving to 3D printing human organs will be a huge boon to our society that is chronically underserved by organ transplant alone. Thank you for sharing!

  9. Thanks for the great article. In terms of your first question – “what are the long-term effect of the 3D printed products on patient health? While we can observe their effectiveness in the short-term, we have yet to see how our bodies respond in the longer-term.” Considering much of the material used is similar to implants and prosthetics that have been used for years or are already a part of our anatomy, it is very likely that our bodies will respond well to these products in the longer term. In terms of your second question, “what are the effects on our global healthcare systems and economy?” – this is significantly more complex. We are still in the early stages of adopting these advances. 3D printing of organs is certainly not a reality as of yet but it certainly can be in the future. One could imagine that these technologies will be able to save people requiring organs that would otherwise have died on organ waitlists. While this is an incredible medical advancement, it also means significantly more costly procedures for patients. On the other hand, as these technologies advance, they will become cheaper and more automated. It is certainly possible that these technologies can make some operations more efficient and cost effective. Furthermore, considering the price of these technologies and the concern with potential reimbursement, it is likely that these advancements will initially only be accessed by wealthier patients in developed countries – which can exacerbate the current state of health inequity.

  10. Interesting read.

    I think 3D printing in the China context really offers a unique solution to precision medicine, to enhance the patient experience. The biggest challenge, in my mind to a 3D printing approach for patient organs, etc. is the accuracy of modelling, the time to print, and the economies of scale which is going to make it tractable for rural or remote hospitals which desperately need this technology to help their patients. To the latter point, your reference [11] referring to reduced costs is a little ambiguous to me, because I think the authors are assuming that economies of scale will kick in before those reduced costs can be realized. Coming from a medical device industry that has to sell high fixed cost equipment to hospitals, painting a rosy long term economic picture is critical to fostering adoption.

    I would be curious to see if MIIT can engage local vendors to lease or give their printers on a “per-use” basis through a subscription model, so hospitals do not have to incur such a high upfront cost before they can deliver some of the incredible precision medicine benefits of 3D printing.

  11. If prosthetic implants produced using traditional methods are able to be produced using 3D printing with the same material composition, it would help mitigate the introduction of custom products into the body, assuming the fusing process does not change the materials in some way. We must also weigh alternatives when considering risk: if a sick child’s choice is between a custom, 3D-printed organ or none, how should parents or doctors decide? I imagine the markets for donated and compatible organs are small and not easily accessible when needed most.

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