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Ethical and policy implications

In the future there is the possibility of using 3D printing technologies together with advances in stem cell research to use patients’ own stem cells to print functioning organs for transplant (such as kidneys or livers or hearts).

Printed organs have a number of important advantages over donated organs: improving the health of patients needing replacement organs, because there is no risk of rejection of the transplanted organs, reducing the waiting lists for transplant organs and being able to provide viable organs that are the appropriate size for children.

Over the next three decades there will be significant increases in the proportion of the population above 60 years of age. Some health concerns affecting morbidity, well-being and the social engagement of an ageing population include: osteoporosis and repair of bones following trips or falls, diabetes and effective treatments to mimic a functioning pancreas, chronic disease resulting from organ damage or failure (heart, kidney, liver, bladder), sensory impairment (hearing sight), etc. 3D printing in medicine has the potential to reduce the burden on the healthcare system, posed by an ageing population, by providing more effective treatments; helping older people to stay healthy and to live independently for longer.

While the use of 3D printing in medicine offers these benefits, they also raise a number of ethical questions that will need to be considered as these technologies develop, such as: safety, justice in access and whether these technologies should be used to enhance the capacity of individuals beyond what is ‘normal’ for humans.

These questions need to be considered by clinicians, health policy-makers and societies as the potential for 3D printing becomes more evident in the area of health. Some of these will raise questions about the ethical acceptability of specific applications such as the military use of the technologies.

By identifying and starting to address some of the social and ethical implications of 3D printing in biomedicine before the technology is fully developed, there is a better chance of ensuring that the new medical treatments meet patients’ expectations for safe and effective treatments that also meet societal demands for secure, fair and cost-effective healthcare.

  • Is patient safety the only ethical issue that should be considered when thinking about implanted 3D printed devices? Share your thoughts in the discussion space.

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This article is from the free online course:

Bioprinting: 3D Printing Body Parts

University of Wollongong