The Rapid Adoption of Digital Pathology
Scalable digital pathology workflows are critical to a lab’s growth and ability to provide patient-centric care
Joseph Nollar, AVP product development, leads the development of XIFIN’s LIS solution. He served as CIO of PathCentral until its acquisition by XIFIN, directing all commercial laboratory information system software development. Nollar founded LIS provider eTeleNext in 2001 and served as president until its acquisition by PathCentral.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the health care industry to rethink the way to deliver health care services. Health care providers who needed to provide services in a safe way began to rely on telemedicine services to meet with their patients. Patients have also developed a new appreciation for access to diagnostic testing. In the US, they can now get routine tests ordered at their local pharmacy, and in some cases, they can order lab tests online. While COVID-19 testing has contributed to the direct-to-consumer (DTC) diagnostic testing market’s rapid expansion, DTC goes way beyond COVID-19 testing. This is only one area that diagnostics is changing. Clinical labs also had to implement other advances to maintain services and provide care during the pandemic. Pathology labs traditionally work in environments where staff work in close quarters. They process specimens and prepare and stain slides that are then read and diagnosed by pathologists. These labs needed to develop safe ways for their staff to work to continue to provide services. These safety measures included physical distancing, wearing masks, and using additional personal protective equipment.
COVID-19: A catalyst for digital pathology
The greatest advance, however, was broader adoption of digital pathology. Digital pathology has long held great promise, but reimbursement issues, regulatory challenges, and other roadblocks prevented it from reaching its full potential. Early on during the pandemic, the government agencies that regulate labs granted labs permission to implement telemedicine in the form of digital pathology. Today, labs are realizing the benefits of this technology. Pathologists can safely log in from home to remotely access whole slide images and diagnose cases. Digital pathology also provides expanded access to sub-specialty experts, such that patients can get the best possible diagnosis from experts in that disease state.
AI-powered diagnostic insights
Another factor that contributed to adopting digital pathology is the increase in artificial intelligence algorithms that provide additional diagnostic insights. AI is perfectly suited to reading digital pathology slides and applying advanced computational logic to analyze them. AI allows pathologists to triage for complex or high-risk cases, so they can focus on those that require more attention.
AI can easily manage the enormous quantity of data created through the patient care lifecycle to improve pathologic diagnosis, classification, and even disease predictions. This is especially valuable given the shortage of pathologists and other critical health care workers that continues to plague many US markets.
Precision medicine another digital pathology accelerant
Precision medicine is another factor accelerating the adoption of digital pathology. Digital pathology provides quicker and more accurate diagnostic results that lead to additional test add-ons, such as genetic testing to determine the best possible treatment options. This sets the stage for improved care coordination between pathologists, radiologists, oncologists, and others involved in oncology patient care. Ultimately, this fosters a more transparent—and effective—relationship between providers and patients.
Effective digital pathology requires the right image management software platform that integrates with a comprehensive laboratory information system (LIS) to fully coordinate with a laboratory’s workflow. This tight integration between image management systems and LIS enables multidisciplinary teams to collaborate across specialties, as well as improves treatment planning and tracking. This integration also facilitates the commercialization of a laboratory’s AI.
A scalable digital pathology workflow is critical for a laboratory’s growth and ability to provide patient-centric care. Technology will continue to respond to—and drive—a change in the health care landscape. The need for integration and connectivity can lead clinical lab leaders to believe that they need to completely replace their LIS; however, this is not the case. Often, clinical laboratories can retain their current LIS and supplement it with digital pathology-enabled LIS capabilities that provide the interoperability critical for a successful digital pathology program.
The end-to-end impact of digitization
The accelerated adoption of digital pathology was initially driven by the need to provide remote diagnostics capabilities during the pandemic, but over the long term, the adoption of this technology will continue to be fueled by ongoing advances in AI-based diagnostics algorithms. This rapid shift to a digital workflow encompasses every step from specimen imaging to analysis to archiving. The future of medicine is convenient, accessible, and effective care powered by revolutionary technologies including digital pathology.