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2 November 2022
3D Printing in Health Sciences takes off
In 2019, I had the opportunity to visit Winston-Salem State University in the United States of America. The main reason for this visit was to assist with curriculum development in interprofessional education and collaborative practise. I was introduced to Professor Chinno Ingram in the Occupational Therapy Department, who used 3D printing as part of their student training for assistive devices for patients as part of their rehabilitation.

As a result of the COVID-19 lockdown period, the learning and teaching activities were converted to online activities. Towards the end of 2020, I submitted a motivation for purchasing a 3D printer under the CAPEX request for research equipment. My motivation was accepted, and in 2021 the 3D printer was purchased by the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences (CHS)
Dr Gérard Filies (back left), Physiotherapy and Occupational
Therapy students and Department of Health Occupational
Therapists – holding two 3D-printed assistive devices

At the start of 2021, I had several meetings with Prof Ingram to explore the possibility of collaborative training initiatives between the two universities. I also made contact with the occupational therapist (OT) in the Department of Health in the Mitchell's Plain community to find out if their clients needed assistive devices. The OT identified a need for several devices but indicated that it was too expensive. These devices included long handled back washers, long handled grab sticks, bed raisers, plate guards, built up grips, lap trays, bottle openers, adapted utensils, dycem mats, bathboards, shower chairs, bath seats, raised toilet seats, commodes, pressure mattresses and cutting boards (one handed).

The Occupational Therapy department at UWC was consulted and it was agreed that the third-year students placed in Mitchell's Plain during 2022 would participate in the 3D printing project. At the start of the project, there was a request for the physiotherapy students to join the project since they were also placed in Mitchell's Plain at the time. A partnership was then formed between myself (Interprofessional Education Unit), Prof Ingram (Winston-Salem State University), initially Ms Megan Alexander (UWC Occupational Therapy – who later went on maternity leave) who was replaced by Dr Thuli Mthembu, Ms Ruwayda Hull and Ms Nicole Davids (Department of Health Occupational Therapists), and the occupational therapy and physiotherapy students of UWC.


Prof Ingram assisted me via Zoom to set up the 3D printer and provided some brief training. This was followed by two online training sessions with the eight students who were placed in Mitchell's Plain.

As part of their clinical training, the students were paired up with Rehabilitation Care Workers from the Department of Health who conducted home visits. Here the students conducted formal assessments on the clients assigned to them and identified the need for assistive devices that would make them more independent in their home environment. Students then searched for appropriate device templates on a free open-source website dedicated to the sharing of user-created digital 3D design files (called Thingiverse) and downloaded the files that would enable them to print the devices for their clients.

These ideas were discussed with me and I provided guidance, and appointments were scheduled where they could either print the devices themselves or arrange that I print it for them. Once the devices were collected on campus, the students issued them to their clients to determine if the devices met their needs by training them to use them (some of the items printed and issued to clients are shown below). Assistive devices easily cost R1000 or more, which most people cannot afford if they are unemployed or living with a disability. 3D printing is proving to be a much more cost effective solution to a long standing problem in communities - this same device in the store could cost less than R100 when being printed.

Dr Mthembu and I have been building bridges with the University of Johannesburg which has an established 3D printing laboratories, as well as with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria which has 3D printers capable of printing metal materials. Through the support of the Dean of CHS, Professor Anthea Rhoda, Dr Mthembu and I will be visiting these institutions to assist us with further establishing the 3D printing laboratory at the UWC Bellville Campus. Initial meetings with these institutions already indicate a willingness to partner with UWC in this initiative.

This project is interprofessional in nature, and 2022 is seen as a pilot phase for the project. In 2023, it will be open to include students from other departments. A formal research project is currently being conceptualised between all the partners and will be submitted for ethics clearance. Some of the initial thinking is that 3D printing could facilitate the development of interprofessional core competencies amongst students that will enable them to practise more collaboratively as future health professionals.

3D Printing Idea

Actual product that was printed