Monday, July 15, 2013

3D Printers, Organs, and Organizations:  A New Dimension in Health Care
A mind that is stretched be a new experience can never return to its old dimension.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr (1809-1894)
Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes.3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques, which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes).
The 3D printing technology is used for both prototyping and distributed manufacturing with applications in architecture, construction (AEC), industrial design, automotive, aerospace, military, engineering, civil engineering, dental and medical industries, biotech (human tissue replacement), fashion, footwear, jewelry, eyewear, education, geographic information systems, food, and many other fields.

3D printers have introduced a new dimension in health care.   By inserting stem cells into a digital model, researchers have been able to build human organs, such as ears, skin, and tracheas, and even primitive bones, hearts, kidneys, and livers.
The promises for health care are enormous, e.g.
1)  cutting down on backlog of transplant kidneys;  
\2) regulating diabetes by creating pancreatic-like organs;
3) creating skin for burn victims;
4) making prostheses that resemble the original limbs;
5) using dental images to build crowns, bridges, and dentures are one setting. There is talk of using stem cells to create blood vessels and nerve-connections to these newly constructed organs. 
The possibilities, claim the makers of 3-D printers, are endless and portend a new era in medicine.
So much for human organs, what about human organizations?  Is it possible to use this new technology, 3-D printers, to build new organizations,  using existing organization “stem cells,” such as disruptive innovation,  medical homes,  accountable care organizations,  and techniques now being employed in those myriad integrated care organizations now springing up across the medical landscape? 
For 3-D printers to create a more perfect organization is a stretch. Still, the words “organ” and “organization” have a common stem. Organizations are an organ of man.  The predominant metaphor of organizations is machine or a military organization.
All we have to do , the reasoning goes, is  to build parts and make sure each part does its part,  and command and control and communication between parts follow the leader, be it a president or a corporate CEO.
The problem, of course, is that man is not a machine, and health care is not a military operation.  It is more complex than either machines or human hierarchies,  dictated from the to-down.  
People are not compliant cogs in the machine.  As John Naisbitt pointed out in Megatrends, we do not live in a forced technology world, but in a high tech/high touch environment, and it’s not either/or,  but multiple choice. And as the authors of Edgeware, so cogently put it, “Science can now say rather clearly that structure and control are great for simple-machine like situations; but things such as open communication, diversity, and so on are needed in complex adaptive systems- such as in modern organizations. “
At present, we act like we live in a two-dimension world – doctors visa-a-vis hospitals,  primary care vis-a-vis nurse practitioners,  Obamacare vis-a-vis open health care markets, Democrats vis-a-vis Republicans,  capitalism vis-a-vis socialism., blacks vis a vis whites.  The real world is more complex.   While we may disagree on certain doctrines,  we can agree that technological innovations like 3-D printers offer great hopes for bettering the human condition.  We can also agree that technology advances offer a new dimension and cross party lines;
Tweet:  3-D printing technologies are transforming health care by building replacement organs, but may not transform health care organizations.

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