Digital pathology has emerged as a transformative approach in diagnostic medicine, revolutionizing the traditional workflow of pathology laboratories. By digitizing microscopic slides and utilizing advanced imaging technologies, digital pathology offers numerous advantages over its conventional counterpart. This blog post will delve into the digital pathology workflow, highlight the key differences from traditional pathology, and explore the technological advancements that have driven its adoption.
A. Digital Pathology Workflow - encompasses several stages, each leveraging technology to streamline the diagnostic process. Here's an overview of the key steps involved:
1. Preparing a tissue sample: This step is similar to the traditional workflow, where thin slices are cut from a biopsy specimen, mounted on a glass slide with a coverslip, and processed with chemicals and stains to preserve its structure and enhance its contrast. Some tips for preparing a tissue sample for digital pathology are to avoid excessive or pale background staining, folds, wrinkles, and air bubbles, as they can affect the quality of the scan.
2. Slide Digitization: This step involves using a whole slide scanner to capture high-resolution images of the entire tissue section from the glass slide. The scanner can automatically adjust the focus, brightness, and color balance of the image and save it in a digital format such as DICOM or SVS (An SVS file is a Tiled TIFF image with additional pages containing slide label, overview image, and scaled copies of the scanned slide). The scanning process can take a few seconds to several minutes, depending on the size and complexity of the slide.
3. Image Acquisition and Quality Control: The digitized images undergo quality control checks to ensure accurate representation and clarity. If the images do not pass the quality control requirements, then typically, the images are rescanned.
4. Image Viewing and Analysis: This step involves using a software viewer to display the images on a computer monitor. The viewer allows the pathologist to zoom in and out of the image, adjust its settings, annotate it with measurements and comments, and compare it with other images. The viewer can also integrate with computational tools to perform automated image analysis, such as detecting and quantifying features, classifying cells or tissues, or predicting outcomes.
5. Diagnosis and Reporting: This step involves creating a report that summarizes the findings and diagnosis of the pathologist based on the image analysis. The report can be integrated with an electronic health record or laboratory information system for easy access and retrieval or archived for future reference. The report can also be shared with other pathologists or clinicians via secure networks or cloud platforms for consultation, collaboration, or educational purposes.
B. Differences from Conventional Pathology - Digital pathology differs significantly from conventional pathology practices, offering several advantages that enhance accuracy, efficiency, and collaboration among healthcare professionals. Here are the key differences:
1. Slide Handling and Storage: Digital pathology eliminates the need for physical slide management, reducing the risk of damage, loss, or misplacement of crucial samples. Digitized slides can be securely stored in electronic databases, ensuring long-term accessibility. Traditional pathology requires physical storage, transportation, and retrieval of glass slides.
2. Remote Access and Collaboration: Digital pathology enables remote access to digitized images, fostering collaborations among pathologists regardless of geographic barriers. Expert consultations, second opinions, and interdisciplinary discussions become more accessible, enhancing patient care.
3. Workflow Efficiency: Digital images can be easily retrieved, reviewed, and shared, minimizing turnaround times and increasing overall efficiency.
4. Education and Training: Digital pathology platforms provide valuable educational resources by offering a vast repository of digitized slides for training and reference purposes. Pathology students can access a wide range of cases, gaining exposure to rare conditions and improving their diagnostic skills.
5. Quality, Consistency, and Reproducibility: Digital pathology enhances the quality, consistency, and reproducibility of pathology diagnoses compared to traditional pathology, which can be affected by variations in human observers’ opinions or interpretations.
C. Technological Advancements - Driving Adoption Digital pathology has gained traction due to significant technological advancements that have improved image quality, storage capabilities, and analysis tools. Here are some key advancements driving its adoption:
1. Development of Whole Slide Imaging (WSI) Scanners: WSI technology digitizes entire glass slides at high resolution, capturing the microscopic details required for accurate diagnoses. WSI offers advantages such as rapid scanning, reduced slide handling, and efficient storage of large datasets.
2. Image Analysis and Artificial Intelligence (AI): Digital pathology platforms incorporate image analysis algorithms and AI technologies, empowering pathologists with automated detection, quantification, and classification of tissue features. AI algorithms assist in pattern recognition, risk stratification, and prognostic predictions, augmenting human intelligence in the diagnostic process.
3. Telepathology: Digital pathology facilitates telepathology, enabling remote consultations, collaborations, and second opinions. Pathologists can share digital images in real-time, allowing for an efficient exchange of knowledge and expertise across geographical boundaries.
4. Cloud Computing, Image Compression, and Storage Solutions: Cloud-based platforms offer secure and scalable storage solutions for large volumes of digital pathology data. Advancements in image compression and storage techniques have reduced the file size and bandwidth requirements of digital images while maintaining their resolution and fidelity.
Digital pathology is a promising field with many benefits for improving patient care, enhancing diagnostic accuracy, increasing workflow efficiency, reducing costs, and advancing research. However, it also faces challenges such as regulatory approval, standardization, validation, interoperability, security, privacy, education, training, and adoption barriers. Therefore, it is vital to address these items and foster collaboration among stakeholders to realize the full potential of digital pathology.
Blog Author Blog Editor
Brandon Combs Nupur Sharma, MD