Digitally enabled prosthetic service to be taken to the community

Publication date: 9 September 2021

Technology is enabling Peke Waihanga to take its artificial limb service to the community, using 3D scanning and printing approaches. Peke Waihanga is a health care provider that makes high-tech medical devices, mainly prosthetics and orthotics. Scanning the stump of someone who has lost a limb and then 3D printing the socket of their new prosthesis allows for an alternative to traditional manual plaster-casting and fabrication techniques.

The initiative has received funding from the Ministry of Health’s Digital Enablement Programme, which provides support for innovation in digital health care. The programme has a particular focus on co-investing in projects that improve access or participation for people who do not access health services and need to. It’s all about improving equity.

The Ministry is working closely with project teams, sharing learning between participating organisations as a community of practice and looking for opportunities to help others learn from these initiatives as they adopt and promote these or similar services elsewhere. The projects are examples of the types of innovation that will be supported by the better access to information enabled by the Hira programme.

Hira will be an ‘ecosystem’ of data and digital services that will enable consumers to access and control their health information through their choice of website or application using a digital device such as a smartphone, tablet or computer. New Zealanders will be more empowered to manage their health, wellbeing and independence. Organisations can work together to share information so that people don’t have to repeat personal details multiple times. Clinicians can harness digital technologies to improve services. The sector and digital innovators can design and contribute innovative data and digital services, making Hira more powerful.

About 1 person in 1,000 in New Zealand has lost a limb; meaning there are about 4,400 people who have had amputations living in our communities. Limb loss results from diseases such as diabetes or peripheral vascular disease, infection and cancer, congenital reasons, and accidents, particularly traffic accidents, industrial and farm accidents. When an amputation is required, it is often necessary to save the person's life.

Peke Waihanga chief executive Sean Gray says previously, someone needing a prosthetic would have to visit one of their centres several times: to be measured, have a plaster cast made, and then – once a fibreglass or carbon fibre socket had been made from the cast, to have the limb fitted and adjusted.

‘But now, using 3D scanning and printing, we can take part of the service to the person. We can’t take plaster casts and all the equipment out into the community. But you take a 3D scanner with you and visit people where they are.

‘If you take for example a lower limb amputee, the person’s stump can be scanned, the file manipulated on the computer, and then sent to a 3D printer to print the person’s socket. When the 3D printed socket comes back, we can fit the pylon and the foot to it, versus doing a plaster cast, making a plaster mould, modifying the plaster mould, draping materials on it and making it, and then fitting it to the pylons and foot.

‘Digitally enabled prosthetics allow for increased convenience and can be produced to a high quality while being efficient and cost effective.’

To support and leverage the benefits of digital prosthetics, Peke Waihanga is in the process of buying a mobile clinic bus, to take its services on the road. These approaches immediately improves access to this essential service for people where they feel most comfortable.

‘For example, we will be able to work with iwi health services – using their clinical space and having our bus in the carpark where the technical work will be done,’ Sean says.

‘We will be able to scan a person’s stump, do the digital modifications on site, and send the file to the printer. When we come back, we can have the 3D printed device ready to fit. It is going to enable services to be provided closer to home, in the community.’

He says while there has been hype in the media for some time about the opportunities presented by 3D printing, the technology hasn’t been there to make it a reality – until now.

‘In recent times materials have achieved a level of strength, integrity and affordability that means we can actually do this. We have done some great work with Victoria University Wellington Design School over the last five years looking at the opportunities, so we are now in a position to build on this work.

‘The funding from the Ministry of Health will allow us to accelerate our work so we can have digitally enabled prosthesis in the market for amputees in New Zealand to benefit from.’

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