COVID-19 Resource Center

Review the latest information on visitor policies, safety procedures, vaccines, and more in the COVID-19 Resource Center.


Simulating Skin and Bones

How 3D Printing is Changing Medical Training

Ever wonder what a medical trainee uses to safely practice new surgical procedures? With Northwestern Medicine, the answer is easy: 3D printing.

3D printing makes it possible to develop life-like models of the human anatomy so that clinicians, medical students and other healthcare professionals can refresh their medical techniques and learn new skills in a safe learning environment, resulting in better care for patients.

“3D printing is becoming the gold standard for the design and engineering of medical training devices. The industry has really responded to the needs of healthcare professionals with this innovative technology,” says Ellie O’Brien, design engineer for Northwestern University Innovations Lab.

Collaborating with healthcare professionals from around the country, the Innovations Lab at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s Simulation Center develops devices that don’t currently exist in other clinical settings. The devices are realistic models of human anatomy and are available for multiple training purposes through Northwestern Simulation, a 15,000 square foot facility featuring simulation and surgical skills labs, patient rooms, a double trauma room, operating rooms and a virtual reality space designed for a range of simple task-oriented procedural modules to more comprehensive exercises such as cardiac arrest, trauma management and even difficult conversations. The lab is accessible to physicians at Northwestern Medicine and faculty members are available to provide comprehensive feedback.

“Having a dedicated space with a full-time medical device engineer focusing on modeling, prototyping and producing training devices really sets our simulation center apart from others,” says Elizabeth Wylie, MHA, executive director of Northwestern Simulation.

Like any designer, O’Brien starts with an empty canvas. She uses real patient data to mimic features and flaws and emulate the touch and feel of a human organ. The devices simulate the detail of adult and pediatric organs, from skin elasticity to realistic dimensions. She also uses sketches, computer-aided design (CAD) software and 3D printing to form the model. (In the past, similar training devices would have been created entirely by hand, resulting in less precise devices.) The devices can take anywhere from a day to nine months to produce. Devices that once took the Innovations Lab nine months to design now have an average time of one week.

To date, the Lab has created a replica of a human face for teaching wound closure techniques; a human foot for teaching emergency orthopaedic care; and an anatomically correct replica of an infant’s chest cavity covered with a synthetic silicone skin and filled with tissue for practicing chest tube placement and minimally invasive techniques. The development of the 3D printed infant chest cavity with pediatric surgeons from the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago would become one of the world’s first validated simulators for pediatric surgery.

The facial wound closure models were created for physicians at a remote rural hospital. Without the models, the physicians would have had to travel a far distance for an extended length of time, leaving their patients without critical care.

One of the biggest advantages of the training devices is preventing errors from occurring on real patients, and allowing clinicians, attending physicians, medical students, nurses, paramedics and other healthcare professionals to make mistakes in a safe environment.

“I believe these training devices are helping people become better physicians and healthcare providers. Knowing that your physician has trained in life-like simulations, using realistic tools is very reassuring to people,” says O’Brien.

And while 3D printing is making an immediate impact in the lives of physicians and medical students, it won’t be long until patients can see the medical applications firsthand too. Not far from the Innovations Lab, a Northwestern University research team is working on 3D printable ink to revolutionize bone implants with a new customizable, hyper-elastic material. The power of 3D printing takes many forms and the physicians at Northwestern Medicine plan to tap them all.