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3D Printing Innovations Facilitate Medical Breakthroughs for Veterans

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  • Published on: July 15, 2020

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was an early adopter of 3D printing, using the technology for years to promote health care innovation and address individual Veteran health care needs. The benefits of 3D printing are limitless—from individually customized care such as creating hand and foot orthotics, prosthetic limbs, and reconstructive surgery, to more groundbreaking applications such as the ability to accurately replicate a patient’s heart, lung, spine, or aortic valve—3D printing has a profound impact on Veterans’ lives.

VA’s early investment and option in 3D printing technology has allowed the Department to innovate and improve Veteran care on an ongoing basis and permitted VA staff to quickly apply the technology to aid in VA’s COVID-19 response.

3D printing Supporting VA Clinicians and Veterans Nationwide During COVID-19

mannequin wearing a mask
A 3D printed surgical face mask designed by staff at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

3D printing has proven essential to medical staff treating patients on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the pandemic, VA coordinated open-source medical products with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) via a signed memorandum of understanding. Additionally, VA partnered with America Makes to rally health care providers and 3D printing organizations into rapidly innovating face mask designs during the pandemic.

Two VA challenges—the Fit to Face Mask Design Challenge and the COVID-19 Maker Challenge—called on innovators and designers to address problems health care workers and first responders encountered while using face masks.

For Beth Ripley, MD, PhD, Director, VHA 3D Printing Network and Chair, VHA 3D Printing Advisory Committee, COVID-19 raised awareness that the strength of the medical centers’ response during the intensity of the pandemic existed in the collaboration and innovation of the teams.

“We are non-siloed, integrated and collaborative,” she said, describing how everyone jumped on board and worked across sites to print face shields and ensure they were distributed to the appropriate locations.

Transforming a Computer File into Anatomical Precision

The impact 3D printing can have on a Veteran’s life and well-being is significant. Imagine your physician discovered a huge tumor wrapped around your ribs that is growing on your lung.

Using a 3D-printed model derived from computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and sophisticated computer software, your medical team can hold the model of your anatomy in their hands. Using the model as a visual aid for pre-surgical planning, they can see details they may not see in two-dimensional imaging. Models also help clinicians determine whether you can avoid an invasive surgical procedure and painful recovery.

Veterans across the country benefit from these custom 3D printed health care solutions with better health outcomes and by being more informed and in control of their health care.

“We have a perfect milieu of impassioned clinicians, health care providers, and research and development staff driving us forward to make things happen for the Veteran,” said Dr. Ripley. “This 3D printing technology is all about empowering our frontline staff and patients to advocate for what they need and then to build it.”

three individuals at a table
VA Puget Sound Health Care System staff assemble 3D printed face masks in preparation for user testing. From left to right: Alex Hotz, Brian Strzelecki, and Chris Richburg.

Building One Layer at a Time

Building solutions that meet unique Veteran challenges is a hallmark of VA’s Office of Information and Technology’s (OIT) support for VHA’s 3D printing transformational technology. Nick Bogden, Enterprise Design Pattern Lead in OIT’s Enterprise Program Management Office, leads a five-person team that delivers architecture and design innovation to achieve VHA-wide 3D printing capabilities.

When the 3D Printing Advisory Committee needed to increase use and access to the limited number of stand-alone 3D printers at VA hospitals two years ago, they reached out to Mr. Bogden and his team. The result? 3D Printing Enterprise Design Patterns (EDP), an operational product that provides a framework of capabilities and constraining principles to aid in the development, acquisition, and implementation of IT systems and services for 3D printing.

“Our focus is to translate the requirements and business needs of the Committee from a technology perspective and furnish an enterprise solution,” Mr. Bogden explained. Network design and security, cloud-based 3D printing services, and data security are the three key EDP pillars fundamental to advancing the current 3D printing landscape at VA.

Also supporting enterprise efforts is the VHA 3D Printing Network. Launched in 2017, it is the first and largest integrated hospital-based 3D printing network in the country. Today, the network leverages resources, expertise, and lessons learned across 33 VA medical centers (VAMCs) and supports VHA clinicians as they care for and treat Veterans every day.

Collaboration and teamwork are distinguishing characteristics of OIT’s support of 3D printing advancements. Currently, Mr. Bogden’s team is developing and writing standards that describe how the 33 VA hospital sites will install multiple printers on the network. As part of the Enterprise Printer Baseline Scrum, the team addresses the business impact of creating a centralized standards document to assist local IT staff in connecting and implementing 3D printers at medical centers across the country.

For more information on 3D printing technologies, visit the VA Innovation Ecosystem website.

Our commitment to digital and IT transformation is shaped by daily dedication to customer service and the close collaboration of our workforce, managers, and leaders. Ready to join us in improving Veterans’ care? Check out all current information and technology career opportunities on DigitalVA. You can also contact VA’s Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer at 512-326-6600, Monday thru Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST or by submitting a resume to

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Page last updated on July 15, 2020


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