From 3D Ops, a 3-D-printed replica of a patient's heart. (Photo: Matt Pulford)

Erlanger Health System in conjunction with the University of Tennessee College of Medicine Chattanooga just announced a partnership with medical solutions provider 3D Ops to pilot pre-surgery 3-D printing hospitalwide. 

The pilot will run a six-month term, and the hospital will establish practices to utilize 3-D printing to improve surgeries and patient outcomes, an Erlanger news release said. 

Unlike similar programs, all surgical departments at the hospital will use this practice, 3D Ops President Keith Campbell said.

"That’s very important to do this hospitalwide study," Campbell said. "No one has ever done anything like that. It’s always been a specific type of [3-D] printing with a very specific type of surgery, but nothing to see what’s going on with the whole hospital."

Blaise Baxter, M.D., of Tennessee Interventional and Imaging Associates, said he hopes 3-D printing will enhance pre-surgery planning and eliminate exploratory surgery. 

"This 3-D capability is relatively new in the medical field, and it is something that is certainly going to change pre-surgical planning and training," Baxter said. "Everything will come down this pathway."

He said this innovation would allow images from various types of scans to become life-sized and lifelike.

"We who work in the imaging world, we see stuff in two dimensions," Baxter said. "But to be able to actually transform [an MRI or CT scan] into a three-dimensional model for the surgeon is a real game changer."

Dr. Christopher Keel, urologist with Academic Urologists at Erlanger, has already used 3-D printing to effectively remove tumors from a kidney. Watch his video explanation here.

Keel said this new step before medical procedures would allow surgeons to operate more comfortably.

"It’s really nice to go in [to surgery] and say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly the way the model looked,’" Keel said. "You can formulate that in your head, but when you have something in your hand, I think it’s helpful. I hope we see better patient outcomes in the future."

According to Campbell, this patient-centered, pre-surgery process will hopefully see several outcomes: decreased recovery time and number of readmissions, and increased quality of surgery.

Although the potential benefits are evident, what about monetary costs to patients and hospitals?

Campbell said that the reimbursement aspect of the service would be studied over the six-month course of the pilot.

Currently, however, the BlueCross BlueShield Association is looking at this emerging market and will be evaluating this process, Campbell said.

While this additional resource will cost money, Campbell said he thinks 3-D printing will, in time, pay for itself. 

"Less time in the operating room, that’s big," Campbell said. "[It’s] $4,745 per an hour [in] operation room and staff costs. If you save 15 minutes out of that, one time a day for 30 days, [the hospital will have] saved more than $56,000. It’s a good deal."

Campbell stressed that this is a process, and the purpose of the pilot is to figure more details out.

With these state-of-the-art practices, Campbell said Erlanger and 3D Ops would revolutionize health care worldwide. 

"We’re just a little startup, but we’re doing something really important," Campbell said. "I’m proud to say that we’re going to blaze new trails in an international way, right here, at this hospital. We’re going to turn the tide with what’s going on with 3-D printing in health care and we’re going to make it something useful."

Updated @ 3:05 p.m. on 10/21/15.