Leveraging Digital Technology to Overcome Barriers in the Prosthetic and Orthotic Industry: Evaluation of its Applicability and Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic

JMIR Rehabil Assist Technol. 2020 Nov 5;7(2):e23827. doi: 10.2196/23827.


Background: The prosthetic and orthotic industry typically provides an artisan "hands-on" approach to the assessment and fitting of orthopedic devices. Despite growing interest in digital technology for prosthetic and orthotic service provision, little is known of the quantum of use and the extent to which the current pandemic has accelerated the adoption.

Objective: This study's aim is to assess the use of digital technology in prosthetics and orthotics, and whether its use can help overcome challenges posed by the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Methods: A web-based survey of working prosthetists, orthotists, and lower limb patients was conducted between June and July 2020 and divided into three sections: lower limb amputees, prosthetist and orthotist (P&O) currently using digital technologies in their practice, and P&O not using any digital technology. Input was sought from industry and academia experts for the development of the survey. Descriptive analyses were performed for both qualitative (open-ended questions) and quantitative data.

Results: In total, 113 individuals responded to the web-based survey. There were 83 surveys included in the analysis (patients: n=13, 15%; prosthetists and orthotists: n=70, 85%). There were 30 surveys excluded because less than 10% of the questions were answered. Out of 70 P&Os, 31 (44%) used digital technologies. Three dimensional scanning and digital imaging were the leading technologies being used (27/31, 88%), primarily for footwear (18/31, 58%), ankle-foot orthoses, and transtibial and transfemoral sockets (14/31, 45%). Digital technology enables safer care during COVID-19 with 24 out of 31 (77%) respondents stating it improves patient outcomes. Singapore was significantly less certain that the industry's future is digital (P=.04). The use of virtual care was reported by the P&O to be beneficial for consultations, education, patient monitoring, or triaging purposes. However, the technology could not overcome inherent barriers such as the lack of details normally obtained during a physical assessment.

Conclusions: Digital technology is transforming health care. The current pandemic highlights its usefulness in providing safer care, but digital technology must be implemented thoughtfully and designed to address issues that are barriers to current adoption. Technology advancements using virtual platforms, digitalization methods, and improved connectivity will continue to change the future of health care delivery. The prosthetic and orthotic industry should keep an open mind and move toward creating the required infrastructure to support this digital transformation, even if the world returns to pre-COVID-19 days.

Keywords: 3D printing; COVID-19; additive manufacturing; amputee; assistive technologies; orthotics; prosthetics; rehabilitation; stroke; telehealth; telemedicine; virtual.