Reading about prosthetic arms, it's easy to be wowed by the results of bionics research. The forefront of scientific innovation in the prosthetics industry is an exciting place to be, with constant breakthroughs in the sector. While the forefront of science is impressive, the cost of advanced prosthetics has ballooned over recent years. So, how much are prosthetic arms, and are they made affordable to everyday people?
The bionics that tend to grab headlines are upper limb prostheses with unparalleled control and dexterity, with neural feedback and biological movement. A prosthetic hand with multiple grip patterns, or even sometimes individual finger articulation, certainly grabs the imagination. Some can even send feedback to users, giving them a sense of touch in the bionic limb.
Innovation in this field is certainly impressive and exciting, but it still comes with numerous drawbacks. Many of these devices work by connecting a sensor to a nerve in the residual limb, or sometimes direct to the brain, to measure electrical signals made when the user goes to move their arm. This requires surgery, sometimes risky open brain operations, with no guarantee that this experiment will lead to a usable product at the end of it.
On top of the potential cost of hospital health care after a procedure like this, there is the cost of the devices themselves to consider.
So how much are prosthetic arms, really?
Let's get down to brass tacks. A multi-grip myoelectric prosthesis costs between £25,000 and £80,000. More advanced models, like the 'true bionics' discussed above, can cost even more. This simply isn't affordable for the vast majority of people. This leads many to rely on the support of fundraising campaigns or (if they're in the US) health insurance plans, though both of these are unreliable and struggle to cover the full cost.
Prosthetics aren't one-time purchases, either. Components wear down with regular use, particularly in adult models, and can be expensive to replace. Children, meanwhile, outgrow their prosthetics regularly. The result in either case is the requirement to buy a new prosthetic every few years, at an exorbitant price.
This leads to many amputees and people with limb difference to simply go without a prosthetic device altogether, which for many isn't their own choice. There are many medical benefits associated with wearing a prosthetic. Many of these are related to muscle development and health, as well as the more conventionally understood aid in utility. If you’d like to learn more, this article covers this in more depth. These devices ought to be available to anyone who needs them, but in many parts of the world this isn't the case.
Thankfully, there is a new vanguard of prosthetic design that is pushing to make devices that are affordable while maintaining function and durability. Improvement in new materials and manufacturing processes, like 3D printing and machine learning technology, have accelerated this new branch of prosthetic development.
Bundled into the cost of a new prosthetic is a collection of surrounding service. It's essential, for instance, to manufacture a socket that fits an individual perfectly in order to make it fit their body and maximise function and comfort. Everyone's limb difference is unique, and so fitting a socket requires special attention. Traditionally this was done with the help of a specialist who would cast the residual limb, create a socket to fit, then hope that a sock would make up for errors or imperfections in the result.
Adoption of the 3D printer has helped to solve this problem. Not only is this a much easier and cheaper process, it's faster too - so if you need a replacement, that can get to you much sooner. This is why many prosthetic projects are implementing 3D printed parts throughout their products.
One such project is ExpHand. Engineered with 3D printing tech in mind, ExpHand is built to continue to fit a child as they grow. This means it is both initially affordable and reduces the need for regular replacement.
3D printing is being used in other projects, too. For example, a socket for a fitted prosthetic can be made by 3D scanning the residual limb of the user. This results in a socket more precisely tuned to fit them than the old plaster casting method which is still in use for other designs.
If you're in the UK, you may look to the NHS for a prosthetic. The NHS has recently made multi-grip prosthetics available to patients other than veterans for the first time, which is a huge step forward for the accessibility of these devices.
Some companies reduce the cost of their prosthetic device, but offer a plethora of separate personalization options. This reduces the cost of the prosthetic itself, making them more accessible. There are psychological benefits to wearing a prosthetic that fits your personality - be that matching your skin tone as closely as possible, or matching your fashion style. This means many people buy the extras and help more people afford the prosthetics they need.
With new prosthetics companies entering the market every day, and rapid innovation in design and technology, there is a lot to be hopeful for in the future of affordable prosthetics. It's essential that those with limb difference have the choice to wear a prosthetic that meets their needs, and have as many options made available to them as possible.
For more information about prosthetic arms, click here to go to the FAQ section of our website. Or, if you'd like to learn more about how ExpHand is making a difference in the prosthetics industry, you can find our About Us page here.