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Have We Reached the Tipping Point for Digitisation in the NHS?

By Simon Kimber

Simply put, social distancing restrictions and self-isolation requirements have made even more compelling what was already a solid case for digitising.

Many NHS hospital trusts have already been exploring digitising their histology workflows for some time. As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic crisis in early 2020, however, it seems as though the tipping point for digital pathology may finally have arrived. 

Whilst early adopters have long been pointing out ways digital pathology can solve problems inherent in the traditional microscope/glass slide setup, many pathologists remained sceptical until recently, mainly due to lack of tangible evidence and overall reluctance to change. With COVID-19 affecting our lives and professions in so many ways, the global pandemic and the consequent lockdowns have now exposed the myriad vulnerabilities within the analog workflow. As the current health crisis has started to impinge on the pathology community's ability and natural inclination to help, even those previously reticent to take the leap are finally getting on board the digital train. 

Digital pathology's ability to solve so many immediate COVID-19-caused issues has forced many hospital administrators and clinical directors to take notice. 

No longer constrained by physical slides, pathologists can now access and report their case work from wherever they are located, and by as much as their current circumstances permit. Digital solutions introduce image management possibilities that simply fall beyond the possible when viewing slides down a microscope -- for example, making annotations, requesting or providing remote second opinions, and organising virtual multi-discipline case meetings. 

Apart from adding functionality, digitisation helps on the operational level too. Even at the best of times, the movement of slides by courier service can lead to losses and breakages, which would necessitate fresh work and result in protracted turnaround times. With expectations that laboratories are unlikely to run at a full complement for some time yet, repeating work already undertaken is something hospitals can ill afford at the moment. Similarly, with our postal industry wrestling with its own disruptions in human resources due to COVID-19, regular delays in shipping have become par for the course. 

While scanning certainly introduces an extra step to the traditional workflow, that additional minute or two associated with arriving at a digital image is greatly offset by the opportunity to allocate case work instantaneously or share cases remotely without fear of loss or damage to the slides.

Early successes make me optimistic about the future.

Fortunately, as the appetite for digitisation steadily goes up, agile vendors have mobilised to deploy digital pathology solutions in a flexible and time-effective manner. Not typically considered the nimblest of organisations, some NHS trusts have moved from having no digital footprint prior to the outbreak to installing scanners in-situ and allowing pathologists to do remote case work in mere days. 

Despite the increasing groundswell for digital pathology, there still remain some key hearts and minds to be won over. Since digitising is an exercise in business transformation, we will inevitably experience bumps on the road as we undertake a project of this magnitude during a public health crisis. With social distancing bound to remain the norm for some time, however, the opportunities presented by digital for remote working and improving on case throughput leave many, and myself chief among them, to suspect that the genie is now firmly out of the bottle. 

This is a guest post by Simon Kimber of Sysmex UK, an Inspirata approved partner and official distributor of 3DHISTECH whole slide image scanners for digital pathology.


Tags: digital pathology, tipping point