Tips & Tricks: In this, two topics ‘Using 3-D Printers in Medicine’ are important from the ICT exam point of view.

Computers in Medicine

1.  Describe the use of computers in maintaining Patient and Pharmacy Records?

Hospitals and doctors need to  keep accurate records of all their patients.  This is essential to ensure correct diagnosis and treatment.  An up-to-date medical history is part of the diagnosis process.  Databases are kept by hospitals and doctors so that the data can be shared between medical practitioners and pharmacies (e.g. to ensure no drugs are prescribed which interact with each other in an unsafe manner).

Databases also allow for a quick and easy search of patient records.  This is especially important during an emergency.  E.g, When accessing the patient’s medical history could mean the difference between life and death.  It also means that medication can be prescribed without issuing paper prescriptions – an email could be sent to the pharmacy.

The sort of data which would be required on a patient database would be as follows:

  • a unique identification number
  • name and address
  • gender (male or female)
  • blood group
  • medical history (e.g. recent medicines taken, treatment given)
  • date of birth
  • any known allergies
  • details of doctors the patient might have consulted
  • important additional information such as CT scans, X-rays, blood reports, etc
  • any current diagnosis.

2.  How to Monitor Patients using a Computer?

By connecting a patient to a computer system, it is possible to carry out 24-hour monitoring of the patient.  Some of the things the computer can monitor include:

  • respiration (breathing rate)
  • brain activity
  • heart rate
  • oxygen levels in the blood
  • blood/body temperature
  • blood sugar levels
  • blood pressure.

The results are shown on a monitor in the form of a digital read-out and/or graphical read-out.

Digital read-outs give the nurse or doctor an immediate value while graphical representations are used to show trends over a period of time.  Both methods supply different information and hence serve different purposes.  There is also sound outputs as well in the form of beeps to indicate that the machine is working.  It also indicates, for example, the heart rate and gives a warning if the patient’s condition suddenly deteriorates.  All these outputs give the doctors and nurses useful information.

The system relies on sensors attached to patients and to a computer system that interprets the sensor data and converts it into a format useful to the nurses and doctors.  Using sensors and computers has many advantages over taking manual readings:

  • they are capable of responding much faster to any change in the patient’s condition
  • they reduce the risk of a nurse being subjected to contagious diseases
  • it is more accurate; using a computer system almost removes any chance of error
  • they can automatically produce graphs/analyse results
  • computers can monitor several patients at the same time
  • readings can be taken more frequently using computer systems
  • there is the potential to save money since fewer nurses need to be paid
  • they never forget to take readings – a nurse could be too busy for example
  • they can operate 24/7 and don’t require any breaks or get tired.

3.  Explain how Expert Systems can be used to diagnose patients?

One of the common uses of expert systems is to diagnose illnesses in patients.

There is an an interactive screen which asks certain questions like:

  • it asks a series of questions about the patient’s illness
  • the user answers the questions asked (either as multiple-choice or yes/no questions)
  • more number of questions are asked based on the user’s responses to previous questions.

On the output screen, the diagnosis can be in the form of text or images of human anatomy to indicate where the problem may be.  The user can request further information from the expert system to narrow down even further the possible illness and its treatment.

How the Expert System works:

  • The interface engine compares the symptoms entered in the input screen with those in the knowledge base looking for matches.
  • The rules base is used in the matching process.
  • Once a match is found, the system suggests the probability of the patient’s illness being identified accurately/
  • The expert system also suggests possible solutions and remedies to cure the patient or recommendations on what to do next.
  • The explanation system will give reasons for its diagnosis so that the user can determine the validity of the diagnosis or suggested treatment.

4.  Explain how 3-D printers can be used in medicine?

One of the most innovative use of 3-D printers is in the field of medicine.

Surgical and Diagnostic Aids

It is possible to print out anatomical parts using 3-D printers.  These are used as an aid towards diagnosis and surgical procedures.  The patient is scanned using:

  • CT (Computerised Tomography)  – which involves producing images of the internal parts of the body in a series of thin slices less than 0.1. mm thick

OR

  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)  – this uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce a series of images of the internal organs in the body.

A 3-D printer can then reproduce a solid object showing the exact internal organs of the patient.  The doctor or surgeon can then show the patient exactly what is wrong and then show them what procedures are required.  They also help the surgeons in planning surgical procedures since they can see exactly what is required well in advance of the operation.

3-D printing systems enable blood vessels, major arteries, tumours and so on to be part of the diagnostic, pre-surgical aids.  This also allows for patient engagement which would be missing from the more traditional consultation methods.

Some 3-D printers produce hard nylon objects which are used in certain pre-surgical planning.  If a patient has suffered, say, a bone fracture, then the surgeon can physically test and position screws and plates in the ‘3-D bone nylon image’ prior to the surgery.  This reduces the chance of any errors when the actual procedure is carried out.

Prosthetics

3-D printers are now being used to print out prosthetics i.e. artificial arms, hands and legs.  Whilst state-of-the-art myoelectric prosthetics cost ten of thousands of dollars, the price of a 3-D printed prosthetic arm or hand can be as low as $100.

Much research in this regard still needs to be done.  However, the results to date are very encouraging with many more people from poorer countries now having a chance to replace missing limbs at a fraction of the cost compared to existing methods.

Tissue Engineering

Recent advances have allowed the 3-D printing of bio-compatible materials, cells and supporting structures.  This has improved the viability of the function of cells within a 3-D printed object.  3-D bio-printing is a very complex process and requires the input from biologists, medical engineers, physicists and other engineers.  It has already been used successfully to produce multilayered skin tissue, bone tissue, heart/artery grafts and tracheal splints.

The procedure involves making biological materials by diffusing cells into a bio-compatible scaffold.  The bio-printed tissue is then put into an incubator and the cell structure held within the scaffold grows to form actual cellular tissue.

There  is still much research to do, but the goal of growing replacement organs, using cells from the actual patient, is getting ever closer thanks to 3-D printing technology.

Design of medical tools and equipment

3-D printers are now being used as part of the product development cycle for medical tools.  This allows new medical equipment/tools to be made ready for the market much faster.  Traditional methods of producing new equipment/tools are very time consuming and very expensive.  3-D printers create injection moulding tools which allow several prototypes to be made within a short period of time.  Traditional methods require aluminium moulds to be made which is slow and expensive process.  Development time is reduced, on average, by up to 90% and development cost is reduced, on average, by up to 70%.  This is important in the field of medicine where it is essential that development time and costs are reduced to a minimum.

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