Doctors turn to 3D printing to source medical supplies in earthquake-recovering Nepal

Doctors turn to 3D printing to source medical supplies in earthquake-recovering Nepal

Doctors turn to 3D printing to source medical supplies in earthquake-recovering Nepal

Updated 5 March 2017, 16:00 AEDT

A 3D printing company is providing much-needed medical supplies to remote areas of earthquake-recovering Nepal, where basic tools such as tweezers and otoscopes are next to impossible to source.

Until recently, staff at the health clinic in Bhotechaur village, in Nepal's Sindhupalchowk region, had no way to examine their patients' ears for signs of infection.

While otoscopes might be a common medical item in the West, for remote mountain hospitals in Nepal, sourcing such equipment can be next to impossible.

But when Nepalese engineer Ram Chandra Thapa heard about the problems facing the Bhotechaur clinic, he realised he could offer a simple solution.

He specialises in 3D printing, so he designed and printed a plastic otoscope.

"All the doctors and medical practitioners ... they are happy with our [3D-printed] equipment," Mr Thapa said.

"The items that we develop using 3D printers are cheaper, and they can be made in the field."

Mr Thapa works for Field Ready, a US-based non-profit organisation that specialises in 3D printing plastic equipment for humanitarian and emergency situations.

Field Ready established itself in Nepal in the wake of the country's devastating magnitude-7.8 earthquake in April 2015, which killed almost 9,000 people, including 35 people in Bhotechaur.

Mr Thapa's initial focus was to design and print spare parts for machines damaged by the earthquake.

But he soon realised he could also tackle Nepal's systemic hospital supply chain problem with his 3D printing skills.

"Health posts ... have to go through a long process of supply," he said.

"Just even to get a small tweezer, or a fetoscope, or an otoscope, [the clinics] had to wait for two to three months to go through the regular process."

Field Ready said the delays were caused by a complicated mix of issues, including poor road infrastructure, slow bureaucracy, and a lack of money.

Most of Nepal's medical equipment is also manufactured in China or India, and local health clinics struggle to purchase anything that is not a bulk item.

Mr Thapa is now testing designs for various 3D-printed medical instruments, including plastic fetoscopes, otoscopes, tweezers, wrist braces and umbilical clamps.

All of the health clinics testing Mr Thapa's designs are located in earthquake-affected villages, such as in Bhotechaur.

"The instruments are very good," Bhotechaur nurse Bimala Upreti said.

"We are able to provide treatment for ear infections now when the patients come here."

Patients impressed, but more services needed

Sabitri Thapa lives near the clinic, and recently took her newborn baby for a check-up.

She said she was happy when the doctor used a "new thing" — the otoscope — to inspect the condition of her baby's ears.

However, she said the clinic still needed more supplies.

"The new equipment is good, but I want more equipment to be available, like to test blood. This would be better," she said.

Encouraged by the success of the trials, Mr Thapa is now attempting to design other types of plastic medical items, including kidney trays, sharp boxes, forceps and even stethoscopes.

He would eventually like to see 3D printers permanently installed in Nepal's remote health clinics, ideally funded by aid agencies and the Nepalese Government.

Doctors and nurses could then be trained in how to use them, and print their own equipment as needed on-site.

"If they had 3D printers in their health clinics, they could just download 3D designs and print it there," he said.