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Medical model maker mixes it up

June 30, 2021

3D printer in office
Joe Crain uses a 3D printer, pictured in an office at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis, to fabricate molds that can be used by KU School of Medicine-Wichita residents in the Surgery Skills Lab.

By Joe Stumpe

Joe Crain is using a mix of high-tech savvy and improvisation to help launch the medical model fabrication effort at KU School of Medicine-Wichita.

Crain's primary job is to fabricate medical models and task trainers such as suture pads, blood vessels and bowel segments for use in the school's surgical skills lab, located on the third floor of Ascension Via Christi St. Francis. He's attached to the surgery residency program but has also worked with the family medicine program and wound center.

"We want to build a skills and simulation program that is very high fidelity, with the highest realism possible and interprofessional," said Crain, who was hired by the school in January 2020. "That means we involve the whole patient team."

Marilee McBoyle, M.D., director of the surgical skills lab and professor in the Department of Surgery at KU School of Medicine-Wichita, said the school has always bought its medical models from outside suppliers. Creating them in-house may eventually save money and more importantly give residents and students more opportunities for practice.

"We could get it before but there was always a very limited supply," McBoyle said. "Maybe the bowel (model) was only available for one skill session" before a new one was needed. "He can keep making it for repeated practice.

"What Joe does is not only very cost effective but his quality's great."

Crain has yeJoe Crainars of experience in the field of simulated technology. In San Antonio, he ran a simulation lab for Texas' largest nursing school. After stints in Iowa and Los Angeles, he came here to help start a health care simulated technology program at WSU Tech. When WSU Tech folded that program, McBoyle and John Smith, M.D., who'd been on its industry advocacy team, helped bring him to KU School of Medicine-Wichita.

Crain makes the templates, jigs and molds for the models in a 3D printer located in his office at St. Francis. Crain said it's one of the largest desktop models available, capable of creating objects up to one cubic foot in size. Usually made of hard plastic, the molds are precise and durable, comparable to what could be made by hand, he said.

Crain makes the actual models at MakeICT, a nonprofit "makerspace" in south Wichita that's used by craftsmen, artists and others. This is where the creativity comes in.

"Just as models of this quality are not available, and the quality products on the market are not easily affordable, the manufacturing process used at MakeICT has required constant experimentation and refinement," Crain said. "The process over time has utilized a vast spectrum of techniques in fabrication. These run the gamut from mixing bowls, muffin tins and Styrofoam, all the way up to complex 3D printing and the study of the chemical properties of the materials at various concentrations and temperatures.

"We'll try anything," he added. "A lot of it is trial and error."

He's helped by Monica Mitchell, a volunteer and former student of Crain's at WSU Tech who is interested in simulated health care technology. The school rents the MakeICT space for far less than it would cost elsewhere, but the low cost is not the only draw. Some of the materials and processes Crain uses would not be permitted at St. Francis.

McBoyle saMedical molds made by Joe Crainid Crain burned "lots of midnight oil" to have products available for the MS-4 Surgery Boot Camp that began in April under the direction of Kelly Winter, M.D.

When McBoyle took the Department of Faculty Affairs & Development's Teaching for Excellence course given by Nancy Davis, Ph.D., and Julie Galliart, Ed.D., Crain fabricated pressure injuries for McBoyle to use in the development of her curriculum on educating medical students in chronic wounds.

"The students love the models," she said. McBoyle noted that Tomas Serena, M.D., who oversees the Via Christi Wound Center, asked to meet Crain as he hadn't seen anything like his models. Serena is known nationally and internationally for his work in advancing wound care.

"He (Crain) is just so excited about what he does and the benefits of it," McBoyle said.

Models for bones and brains, kits for incision and biopsy training, and the conversion of a static medical doll into a surgical trainer are just a few of the projects Crain has underway. He thinks the school may have to spring for more space at MakeICT before long.

"We're just barely scratching the surface of what we can do with this."

Top, left: Joe Crain, manager and coordinator for the KU School of Medicine-Wichita's surgical simulation and skills lab, based at Ascension Via Christi-St. Francis in Wichita.

Lower left: Pictured are some of the models Joe Crain has made for use by KU School of Medicine-Wichita in the surgery skills lab.

Last modified: Jun 30, 2021
Media Inquiries:

Belinda Venters

KU School of Medicine–Wichita
Public Affairs
1010 N. Kansas
Wichita, KS, 67214

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