The art of paper-folding is making surgery more efficient and less traumatic. It could even save you money.
Staying in the hospital after surgery isn't exactly cheap.
There are over 50 million in-patient surgeries in the United States each year. They're not always easy on people, and they're certainly not cheap; according to the Kaiser Foundation, a day in a U.S. hospital costs, on average, over $2,200. That's the cost of a used car! That's 7.5 weeks of minimum-wage pay! That's 9,800 Chicken McNuggets!
No matter how you look at it, $2,200 in post-op costs at the hospital is some serious coin, so anything that helps patients heal faster after surgery is a huge benefit.
What if we told you one key to a speedier and cheaper recovery looks like this?
Yep. That's origami — the craft of folding paper — and it's a big source of inspiration for engineers who are working to innovate on health care tools.
Of course, hospital-grade origami isn't exactly what your third-grader is learning in arts and crafts class:
These new origami-inspired tools are being developed by researchers at Utah's Brigham Young University. The beauty and genius of the designs lie in their simplicity; instead of creating an ever-increasing number of moving parts, researchers are putting that tendency in reverse, instead relying on folds and self-contained hinges to do the same job.
It's an entirely new way to think about medicine, and it could revolutionize robotic surgery.
Here's one example of an origami-inspired tool, which turns the classic origami chompers into miniature forceps.
The result is a super-small tool with the ability to do more delicate work than current technology allows.
In other words, the new tools will create smaller, more precise cuts, making for less traumatic and less invasive surgery.
Smaller cuts and less invasive surgeries mean patients will be out of the hospital and back on their feet in as little time as possible. After all, a lot of what you're recovering from after undergoing surgery is the giant hole that surgeons cut in your body to get to whatever needed fixing. A less invasive surgery means fewer things your body needs to heal.
"That's really probably the most important thing," says professor Larry Howell, one of the researchers on this project. The goal, he says, is to reach the point where surgery is so minimally invasive it doesn't even leave a scar. "And we're actually starting to be able to approach that size."
If you think these new forceps look clumsy, think again. These guys make sewing a suture look like poetry in motion:
One of the coolest things, Howell says, is seeing how art can inform science.
The limits of this technique seem bound only by designers' imaginations. Scientists can discover designs in art that wouldn't have been immediately obvious with traditional engineering. That has the potential to lead to a host of amazing inventions.
One idea the BYU researchers highlighted was foldable inserts that could one day be used to replace damaged cartilage in the spine:
The team, which has previously done work for NASA developing solar arrays and other equipment, used a similar approach when coming up with the ideas like the spinal insert — taking something big, making it as small as possible in order to get it where it needs to go, then unfurling it when it's needed.
Devices like this have the potential to de-complicate incredibly complicated surgeries. Already minimally invasive techniques like the ones being developed at BYU have allowed doctors to perform certain kinds of cardiac surgery as outpatient procedures.
This is the kind of work that's inspiring, useful, and — let's be honest — really cool-looking. Elegant solutions like these will hopefully turn future surgeries from something onerous into something awesome.