Printing the future of healthcare
Mark Tan from Singapore General Hospital holds a 3D print specimen

Dr Mark Tan at the SGH 3D Printing Centre with a 3D-printed replica of a ribcage // Credit: Tomorrow’s Medicine, SingHealth

Navigating the intricate structures in an organ can be a delicate and complex operation, even when it’s done virtually on a computer screen. But with 3D printing, surgeons can now have a dry-run of the operation using accurately printed anatomical models.

Elaborating on the promise of this technology, Dr Mark Tan, clinical lead at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) 3D Printing Centre and consultant with the Department of Diagnostic Radiology said, “Clinical 3D printing allows clinicians to use patient images to develop patient-specific medical models and devices that contribute to patient care in a personalised and individualised way.”

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At the SGH 3D Printing Centre, Tan and his team of engineers, radiographers and radiologists focus on creating platforms and systems that can enhance the precision, efficiency and accessibility of 3D printing techniques. Through their combined expertise in clinical 3D design, additive manufacturing, and medical imaging, they developed a range of patient-specific anatomical models for use during surgery as well as patient-specific prosthetics, orthotic devices, and implants.

In 2022, the team worked with surgeons at the National Heart Centre Singapore to produce heart models that were used for planning and rehearsing the surgical treatment of hypertropic cardiomyopathy—a condition characterised by the abnormal thickening of heart muscles that disrupts the normal flow of blood through the body. Anatomical models were 3D printed from the patient’s medical imaging scans out of material which mimics cardiac muscles in look and feel, giving the surgical team a detailed and realistic map of the patient’s spatial anatomy. The models also allowed the team to determine the amount of abnormal heart tissue to be removed as well as to rehearse the procedure prior to the actual surgery—the first time 3D printing was utilised in this manner in Singapore.

Printing the surgical plates and screws for pelvic and facial fracture reconstructive surgery also enabled surgeons to pre-size and pre-shape the implants before surgery instead of during the operation, reducing the pressure faced by clinicians and decreasing the intra-operative surgical time for the patient.

But it is not just patients who stand to benefit from this new technology.

In fact, 3D printing has also brought about advances in medical education, with the team’s creation of 3D printed temporal bones, developed in collaboration with Duke-NUS and Singapore University of Technology and Design that were used to augment existing teaching resources, including cadavers. This development was crucial in facilitating the continued training of Ear, Nose and Throat surgical residents in specialised procedures during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when cadavers were in short supply.

“These are the directions the technology and science is moving in, and we want to be able to be in the position to adopt such advances when the time is right. As an Academic Medical Centre in a regional health system that covers more than half of Singapore’s population, SingHealth has a mandate to stay on the cutting edge of innovative, yet accessible, medical care. We need to give patients the best treatment we can within this paradigm and the question is how we can lead the way in this. I think 3D printing is one of those ways.”

Dr Mark Tan


Adapted by Sruthi Jagannathan from Moulding the future of healthcare - SingHealth

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