This story is a “gee whiz, look at what these brainy college kids are up to” celebration of the charitable work of young engineers. Perhaps it isn’t entirely fair to hold it to our criteria for medical news stories. However, it promotes the use a specific medical device without telling readers whether it is really the best option for the featured patient or others like him.
News reports must be more than promotional puff pieces. A cheerleading narrative that ignores real-world complexities of medical devices, fails to tell readers about alternative devices, and skips over the limitations of the featured device ultimately misleads the public.
The story does mention costs, but in a way that is confusing and incomplete. In one place it says assembling an arm costs $20 to $50, then later it says the materials for an arm cost $350. The sort of 3D printers used can cost many thousands of dollars, but that expense does not seem to be included in this story. There is no mention of the costs of fittings or other expert services, or how long the limbs might last and how often they need to be replaced. Considering that conventional prosthetic arms cost thousands of dollars, the costs listed in this article are hard to believe.
The story reports that this sort of 3D printed arm can be made to look really cool. Other than that, it doesn’t say anything about how well the arm actually works. The cheery impression conveyed by the story oversells the performance of this sort of device. The website of the E-Nable group mentioned in this story cautions that their 3D printed hands “should be seen as TOOLS and not a fully functional prosthetic device.”
There is no discussion of how well these 3D printed prosthetics fit onto the patient’s bodies. Surveys of people with prosthetic arms indicate that many users have problems with skin irritation, blisters and upper body pain. This story did not mention any of the potential problems that are common among users of prosthetic limbs.
The story included only anecdotes. The reader is not given any sense of the available evidence regarding the best designs of prosthetic arms or how well they function.
We will give the story a passing mark on this criterion, because it obviously applies only to people who do not have two arms. However, while the story did mention that 3D printers might be able to help provide prosthetic arms to people around the world who do not have access to conventional prosthetic arms, the story would have been better if it provided some explanation of why the patients it profiled would choose a 3D printed arm over any of the other prosthetic arms currently available.
There are no independent sources. Everyone quoted is involved in some way with the printing of 3-D prosthetics.
Other than the appearance, there are no comparisons with other types of prosthetic arms.
While the story includes links to the groups developing these prosthetics, there is really no exploration of how easy it is to get one. Apparently the process involves finding a group of local volunteers, such as middle school students and Boy Scouts, who can assist with printing and assembling the limbs. Are these volunteers widely distributed throughout the country? Do they have the capacity to meet demand? We’ll give the benefit of the doubt, but relying on such volunteer groups sounds like it could lead to disappointment, especially if the publicity from stories like this one leads to a surge in demand.
Although the story reports that the featured college students are the only ones making an electronic arm using 3D printers, it does not tell readers what is actually new, if anything, about how this device performs for users as compared to other prosthetic arms.
The story does not appear to rely on a news release.