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Educators Turn to 3D Printing to Train Nursing Students

Healthcare simulations are a time-tested and effective way of training new clinicians. They provide students with much-needed hands-on experience, allowing them to practice specific skills in a safe setting.

Unfortunately, the cost of developing a simulation program is prohibitive to many organizations, with components costing thousands of dollars with finite applications.

Faced with this conundrum, Dr. Lori Loice, a clinical associate professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), contacted Norven Goddard, a research scientist at UAH’s Systems Management and Production (SMAP) Center, about the growing trend of using 3D printing to develop healthcare simulations.

"Norven mentioned that the [UAH] has six 3D printers," says Lioce, who also serves as the executive director of the college’s Learning and Technology Resource Center. "So I gave him a long list of what we needed and a bag of samples, and we collaborated on what he and his students could print."

"These models cost more than a thousand dollars, but we wanted something that would save money, be cost effective, and use the university’s resources," says Goddard. "We asked ourselves, how cheaply can we do this?"

An Interdisciplinary Approach
Goddard assembled a team of undergraduate-student interns from a variety of disciplines to help tackle the problem. The students downloaded open-source digital design files for a circothyrotomy trainer, a simulation that is used to teach nurses how to perform an emergency procedure to clear a patient’s airway when traditional methods proved ineffective.

Loice worked with the students "to get the right texture and strength," and after just three prototypes, they successfully created a functional and accurate 3D printed circothyrotomy trainer. The entire process cost only $15, the price of the materials used. "Now we are using four of them in our class, with a savings of $6,000," Loice reports.

In addition to the circothyrotomy trainer, the team also built a 3D-printed vein finder; a typical vein finder costs $100, but the 3D-printed version cost only $6 to print. They're also working on a 3D-printed onychectomy trainer, a device used to teach nurses how to remove a thumbnail, and a 3D-printed injection pad, which is used to simulate injections.

Loice is proud of what the team has already accomplished and excited about what they can achieve going forward; she hopes to expand the collaboration between the College of Nursing and SMAP to benefit both programs.

"We’re trying to cross-pollinate so everyone knows how to 3D print, injection mold, solder, use the software, and do whatever else is needed," she says. "Diversity of thought and science stimulates needed growth and solutions… It’s precisely because we think differently that we are innovative together."