3D Printers Inspire Innovative Partnership
Shepherd Center partners with Georgia State University to pilot an innovative study using 3D printers to help patients and students.
The maker movement, a cultural trend that places value on an individual's, or “maker’s,” ability to employ do-it-yourself techniques to create technology products, has made a positive impact on many industries, including the healthcare space – and especially at Shepherd Center.
“At Shepherd Center, we innovate to transform patient care at our hospital and around the world,” says Deborah Backus, PT, Ph.D., FACRM, vice president of research and innovation at Shepherd Center. “One way we do that is by encouraging employees to think outside of the box, whether that be using existing assistive technology in new ways or creating unique solutions to meet patients’ needs.”
In 2019, Shepherd Center did just that by becoming the host of the Atlanta Chapter of Makers Making Change (MMC), an organization that connects people with disabilities to volunteer makers who build affordable assistive technologies. Kristen Webber, MOT, OTR/L, BCPR, ATP, is a former Shepherd Center therapy manager who started the chapter, which now has 16 staff members from various backgrounds and disciplines, along with numerous outside volunteers. Webber passed the reins of the Atlanta Chapter over in October 2021 to Jasmin Brumby Smith, MOT, OTR/L, an occupational therapist in Shepherd’s Inpatient Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program, who will continue this exciting work.
In early 2021, the Atlanta Chapter of MMC hosted a virtual meeting where Webber spoke about using 3D printing to create assistive devices for patients. Emily Buchman, OTD, OTR/L, clinical assistant professor at Georgia State University and assistant director of the Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program, was one of the attendees.
“After the meeting, I chatted with Kristen about a joint project we could do that would combine academics and clinical practice,” Dr. Buchman explains. “We agreed to do a pilot study evaluating the effectiveness of using 3D-printed assistive devices for clients with disabilities, both in helping meet the clients’ needs and in providing OT students with real-world experience working with clients.”
Students were divided into three groups, each with one client. Clients were patients at Shepherd Center who had sustained spinal cord injuries. The students consulted with the patients via telehealth sessions.
After sustaining a C-5 level spinal cord injury, one of the patients who Webber contacted to participate came to Shepherd Center for rehabilitation from January through July 2021. In the early days after his injury, he did not have the hand strength to clean his dentures independently and needed a denture cup to assist him. The 3D printer study offered a perfect opportunity to create one.
“The process working with the students was easy,” he says. “I only had to give them feedback to modify the denture cup once before it worked. It was good to give creative input that would help both of us. They got help practicing working with patients, and I got something that would help me day-to-day.”
Since then, the client's hand strength has improved, and he does not need the assistive device anymore.
“You always hope people will grow out of needing assistive technology as they progress in their rehabilitation,” Webber says. “It’s great that he doesn’t need the device anymore, and I’m glad we were able to help him get to that point.”
The students agree. As one student explained in their feedback of the course, “It was great to work with an actual client and see the impact the devices we made for them had on their functional ability!”
After the success of this pilot, the Atlanta Chapter of MMC is considering plans for even more extensive programming using 3D printers. The group partnered with the Georgia Rehabilitation Services Volunteer Partnership (RSVP), a free clinic hosted at Shepherd Center that provides outpatient rehabilitation care for people who are uninsured who have spinal cord injuries and/or brain injuries, including stroke.
Dr. Backus adds, “Innovative strategies like 3D printing have a lot of potential in rehabilitation, and Shepherd Center is uniquely positioned to test the possibilities. I look forward to continuing to explore this space.”
By Damjana Alverson
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.