3D printing a road map for surgeons

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_DSC0043IWK orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ron El-Hawary indicates a visible gap in the vertebrae on a model skeleton of a child’s upper body and head.  The skeleton, a life size reproduction of four-year-old Knightly Mullins’ spine and neck, brings into stark realism the rare skeletal disorder, Klippel-Feil Syndrome that afflicts the young boy. It is also forewarning of the challenge that awaited Dr. El-Hawary as he prepared to perform surgery to correct it.

“Usually when you are operating you don’t have to worry about the spinal cord because it is protected by bone, but you can see here there is no bone,” says Ron El-Hawary. “You just know it is going to be tricky right here.”

IMAG2113As in other sectors 3D printing is a rapidly evolving field in the medical industry. Printing life-size 3-dimensional anatomic models from real patient scan data is proving to be of great benefit to both doctors and patients. It is especially helpful in more complex cases where you can’t see a lot of anatomy.

Orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Richard Hurley, founded Conceptualiz, the company that designed the software used to transform Knightly’s CT scans into a model, printed in-house at the Dartmouth General Hospital, that could be handled and studied from every angle.

“3D models give surgeons more information about spatial anatomy and scale of the patients and it’s making them better surgeons,” Dr. Hurley says. “That translates directly to better patient outcomes. It’s reducing surgeon error rates in the operating room, it’s improving safety for patients and that all leads to decreased complication rates.”


“It’s almost used as a road map,” says Dr. El-Hawary. “In Knightly’s case we also had to address an abnormality called Sprengel’s deformity, which meant one shoulder blade was higher than the other. We could see on the model exactly where bone had fused to hold the scapula in place.”

The 3D model was also a great help to Knightly’s parents.

“Just knowing every single thing was being done was reassuring,” says mother Meaghan Parent. “Especially as Knightly’s case is rare and unusual, they were able to take a really detailed lifelike look at what they were going to do before they went in there.”

That reassurance was reinforced after the surgery.

“I do remember being in a small waiting room, obviously emotions were running high, but I remember  Dr. El-Hawary being able to point out and explain what they had done,” says Parent. “And for someone like me, who is not scientific or medical at all, it was comforting and informative to see the model because I had a hard time picturing it.”