Digital pathology might seem like a daunting term, reserved for those with a Ph.D. in rocket science to discuss.
But it really isn’t that complicated, and it is important to understand, even for the layman.
Pathology concerns the examination of tissue or bodily fluids such as urine and blood to determine and understand the cause of disease.
Digital pathology concerns the use of digital slides rather than microscopic slides to conduct this analysis.
That’s normal, pathologists are often called “the doctor’s doctor”, working as consultants to doctors looking for help in the diagnostic phase, and most of us won’t be in contact with one for our whole lives, making this industry quite opaque and jargon-heavy.
But, by the end of the article you won’t be confused, we promise.
Throughout the article, we’ll further illustrate how this technology works and explain why digital pathology is needed in modern medicine.
We’ll also include a practical example to help make things clearer.
What is Digital Pathology?
The practice of analyzing tissue under the microscope has been around since the 17th century.
For a very long time, this was the modus operandi of pathology: Take a sample of tissue, blood, or urine, stick it under the microscope, and look for the causes of disease.
An example of such a test is the Full Blood Examination, in which a sample of blood is taken and looked at through the microscope.
The red and white cells are counted and analyzed potentially resulting in a primary diagnosis of leukemia, anemia, infections, or other conditions.
Until very recently, this optic microscope-based approach was the standard procedure for pathology.
However, since 2017, when the FDA approved the use of digital pathology for primary diagnosis, this process has become digitized.
This means that pathologists no longer need to look directly at the physical glass slide through the optic microscope lens. These will now be available to be analyzed through virtual microscopy, a fancy term used to describe the use of digital slides in pathology.
In the example previously used, red and white cells would be automatically counted by the computer using image analysis.
This saves countless hours and could be more accurate than human counting, which is prone to error.
Nasjonal IKT, a Norwegian healthcare company, made a great video explaining how digital pathology works:
This technology has been brewing for almost 20 years, but only recently has it been feasible to be used in a commercial setting.
It is still not widely available due to the costs associated, but it is reasonable to assume that it will become the standard in pathology within a few years.
Why You Need Digital Pathology
If this doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, here are a few implications you should consider:
Firstly, digital pathology allows for computer analysis of the slides.
This might seem trivial, but it really isn’t. Suddenly, a whole universe of algorithms and tools is available for pathologists to use in the analysis of the information from the slide.
With the rapid growth of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, this will most likely result in great improvements in cancer detection, cell and protein count, and many other applications.
Algorithms for automated analysis of cancer slide images have already been developed and tested using The Cancer Genome Atlas dataset, and the results show a positive improvement in detecting lung cancer when compared to human diagnosis.
There is no reason to believe that these tools will not be put into practice in the future, especially since this data has been open-sourced and is available to anyone willing to test the algorithms developed, making them more robust.
Secondly, even if the promises of AI don’t materialize, the gains in workflow efficiency and sharing of information alone will forever change the field of pathology.
Sharing a slide image used to require the physical transportation of the slide.
This subjected the sample to contamination, was costly, and took time. These samples can now be shared instantly, with virtually no costs, and without being compromised.
Think about how much the world wide web changed the way we communicate- Digital pathology opens a similar door for disease diagnosis.
This technology also has implications for the profession. It is not outlandish to believe than within a few years, a lot of common disease detection and related tasks will be automated through digital pathology.
At the very least, mundane tasks such as counting cells and proteins will be automated, allowing the pathologist to focus on other more important tasks such as the interpretation of the computer’s work.
This will mean less low skilled labor will be involved in the process and more time will be freed up for pathologists to focus on research and analysis.
Finally, it also allows for deeper collaboration between specialists from all around the world through the sharing of digital slides.
Peer-reviewed and crowdsourced diagnosis may now become a reality, further improving the reliability of pathology.
This is important as pathology can be subjective and influenced by the specialty of the doctor.
Peer review of glass slides is already a common procedure, usually done between two or three pathologists discussing their opinions over a microscope, but the ability to have dozens or even hundreds of specialized pathologists give their image analysis opinion is virtually unheard of.
Harnessing the power of specialized masses could, therefore, make pathology a much more exact science.
We hope to have helped demystify this breakthrough technology.
This innovation will undoubtedly have a major impact on the everyday lives of people, making it more cost-efficient and reducing the number of inaccurate diagnoses.
A digital image-based approach represents a huge leap forward, but the jury is still out on just how much will change- will the benefits be limited to the workflow and automation of arduous, repetitive tasks, or will your pathologist be a robot within 10 years?
We don’t know, but one thing is certain- these are exciting times ahead of us!
Ready to take your practice into the new age and start implementing digital pathology? Contact us here and we will get back to you the same day!