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3D Printing at UPMC

Three-dimensional printing in medicine involves the transformation of a digital image like a CT scan into a 3D model. Those 3D models are replicas of a patient’s actual anatomy that doctors can use to plan surgeries or as a guide during the actual procedure.

UPMC launched its 3D printing program in 2016 and continues to expand its applications across various medical specialties. The 3D printed anatomical models we create can help improve patients’ outcomes as well as reduce the overall cost of care.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

The process of 3D printing at UPMC begins with a surgeon seeing a patient, scheduling surgery, and getting a digital image for surgery planning purposes. Those digital images are usually from CT scans, but can also include MRI scans or ultrasound scans.

Surgeons can request a 3D-printed model based off of the scan if they believe it can help them perform the procedure more effectively.

UPMC staff members create a virtual 3D image of the requested area, and then a specialized printer can create the physical model.

The printing process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours, depending on the size and complexity of the anatomy.

How Does UPMC Use 3D Printing?

There are two major uses for 3D printing at UPMC:

  • Anatomic models: This uses 3D printing to take a digital image and turn it into a model of a patient’s specific anatomy. The exact shape and size of the anatomy is printed, and surgeons can use the model to plan and sometimes practice the surgery. The surgeon can use the model as a reference either before or during the surgery. This accounts for approximately 90 percent of 3D printing applications at UPMC.
  • Patient-specific surgical tools: The digital file of a patient’s anatomy can also be used to 3D custom print surgical tools. Surgical guides for cutting or drilling are created using this process, along with more conventional surgical tools that match the patient’s unique anatomical dimensions. Surgeons follow the guides during the procedure.

While the above applications account for the majority of 3D printing’s use in medicine, there are other potential uses, including:

  • Training tools: Surgeons in training can practice on a model of a patient’s actual physical anatomy.
  • Patient education: Surgeons can show patients the model of their anatomy to help explain an upcoming procedure.
  • Research: Models can be printed to facilitate research. Doctors can practice prototypes of new devices or new treatments on models of actual anatomy.

Which Specialties Use 3D Printing The Most?

The surgical specialties that use 3D models the most include:

What Are The Benefits of 3D Printing?

The goal of 3D printing is to improve patient outcomes. Because 3D printing creates a physical model of a specific patient’s anatomy, the process can prove beneficial to the surgeon performing a procedure.

If a patient has a tumor on an organ, the 3D model will show the tumor’s size and location, as well as the location of other important anatomical parts, like arteries. The surgeon can see the model before and during the procedure to know where to cut.

Cutting or drill guides also can help surgeons when performing a procedure, showing them where to use their instruments.

Who Pays For 3D Printing?

Currently, the health system pays for the cost of 3D printing, and there is no added cost for patients.

Can 3D Printing Help Me?

Talk to your doctor to find out if a 3D model is appropriate for your care. 

3D Printing Patient Story

Doctors at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh used 3D printing while treating a girl who had tumors on both of her kidneys.

Learn more about the case.

Find Out More About 3D Printing