ST. LOUIS – The 3D Printing Center of Excellence at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital is a game-changer in the field of pediatric plastic surgery. Pediatric plastic surgeon Dr. Kevin Chen and his colleagues use the 3D images to plan surgical procedures for conditions ranging from congenital heart anomalies to abnormal skull structures.

The 3D views allow surgeons a view of each patient’s unique anatomy.

Chen, the director of the 3D Center of Excellence, says this center is also helping shape procedures for the future.

“We are sort of still in the nascency or infancy of what we can accomplish with 3D printing in the medical space. So, one really unique opportunity that we have here is to actually customize treatment options that are anatomically perfectly aligned to what the patient’s anatomy is,” he said. “Aside from having a guide or a model, we can actually design treatment options that can be 3D printed.”

The use of 3D printing has long been recognized as a valuable tool in health care. By using advanced software to process standard 2D images from CT scans and MRIs, doctors at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon are creating anatomically-accurate models of various organs and structures, including hearts, kidneys, blood vessels, jaws and skulls, to assist them in planning complicated, high-risk surgeries on children of all ages.

Utilizing 3D technology typically means shorter surgery times, more accurate surgeries, and improved patient outcomes. Dr. Chen also specializes in cleft lip and cleft palate procedures.

3D printers work much like standard office printers, but instead of ink, 3D printers use surgical-grade plastic resin. Over the course of several hours, layer upon layer of material is laid down until an accurate model is created. Physicians then use these models to visualize and plan complex surgeries, and size their instruments, if necessary, before the child even enters the operating room.

The added benefit of using surgical-grade material is that models can be sterilized and taken into the operating room, where surgeons can take continual measurements during surgery, ensuring even greater accuracy.

3D modeling is also being used to educate the next generation of physicians at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon. Over time, we plan to build a library of 3D models of different types for medical students and residents to study.

In addition to the medical, surgical and educational applications, doctors use 3D models to explain procedures to anxious parents, giving them a clearer picture of their child’s condition and the surgeon’s plan for addressing the issue. In times of stress and uncertainty for parents, the use of 3D models has the ability to set their minds at ease.

For more information about the 3D Printing Center of Excellence, click here.

The SSM Health Medical Minute airs Wednesdays on KPLR News 11 at 7 p.m. and FOX 2 News at 9 p.m.