As the “science behind the cure”, pathology has always been at the cutting edge of technological innovation. But with growing demand and an increasingly tech-savvy patient population – who expect to be able to access information and services in a way and at a time that is convenient to them – can pathology keep up?
Dr Wai Keong Wong, consultant haematologist and newly appointed Chief Research Information Officer at UCLH, argues that pathology is already one step ahead of other disciplines in terms of digitisation. “Pathology services were one of the first to be digitised. Look around any lab today and there is hardly any paper – everyone is working on computers. This completely contrasts with many other aspects of clinical care, from how we prescribe to how we interact with other healthcare professionals, which are often inefficient and paper-based.”
Paperless laboratories – and beyond
For Dr Wong, however, digital pathology encompasses far more than just paperless laboratories. Digital pathology refers to all the ways in which technology can enhance service delivery to provide safer, more efficient care to patients. It can include everything from providing virtual pathology services at remote sites to integrating test results across multiple labs to supporting patients to self-manage their own symptoms.
Diagnostic digital pathology, in which slides are scanned to create digital images for diagnosis, education and research, is just one part of the puzzle. “Although digital microscopy is an established technology, it is not yet part of routine diagnostic care,” explains Dr Wong. “Unlike radiology, for example, creating digital pathology images requires an extra step in the laboratory process – which costs time and money. The benefits may be limited unless further technology is incorporated to provide a platform for image analysis algorithms. This opens up the possibility of computer-aided diagnosis which is quicker, safer and more efficient than conventional methods.”
Although digital microscopy is a potentially exciting development for the future, for Dr Wong, the full value of digital pathology comes in creating a fully integrated and streamlined service. “Despite the fact that pathology has been digitised for so long, comparatively little effort has been put into the standardisation and harmonisation of tests. There is currently no way for a third party IT system to bring together two results from two separate hospitals. This leads to inefficiency and confusion and needs to change.”
Advances in digital connectivity mean that we are slowly moving towards a more integrated and patient-centred system. “As a clinician I need to work collaboratively with colleagues across all stages of a patient’s care pathway,” he explains. “And as a patient I want to access my results in a way and at a time that works best for me. Implementing technology to help data flow seamlessly between laboratories, hospitals, clinicians and patients will be truly transformative.” It’s an exciting time for pathology and for HSL, who are committed to harnessing and developing digital creativity and innovation in order to realise this vision.