The Expanding Role of the Pathologist in Cancer Diagnostics

Curtis Stratman

Rising cancer rates have made cancer care and research top priorities for medical institutions worldwide. In 2012, 14.1 million adults were diagnosed with cancer, and the World Health Organization predicts that global cancer rates will increase by 50 percent in the next two decades.1 With this focus, cancer researchers are continually identifying more distinct cancer types. Each cancer type discovered can potentially have a defined set of tests used to identify it along with targeted treatments. Keeping up with this rapid growth of knowledge in precision medicine is a challenge for any medical practitioner.

Pathologists are well positioned to leverage this trend and expand their role as a cancer consultant. They are the physician that analyzes the patient tissue samples collected and definitively diagnose cancer. In addition to traditional pathology techniques of looking at the cancer under a microscope, more and more diagnoses are leveraging molecular and genetic testing to complement their identification efforts. By positioning themselves at the forefront of the latest testing and treatments, pathologists can elevate their role as diagnostician in the cancer care team and allow others to focus on treating the patient.

However, along with these growing volumes of cancer and increased demands for testing, the number of available pathologists is declining. In the United States between 2000 and 2010, the number of pathologists dropped by 7.4 percent. Additionally, more than 50 percent of pathologists are over the age of 55, suggesting that this trend will continue over the next several years.2 This means that individual pathologists are continually taking on greater workload. In their current positions—constrained by the tools and transportation of glass slides—pathologists do not have the resources they need to rise to these growing demands. Despite pathologists’ importance to cancer care and the challenges they are facing, few leaders—within labs, within organizations, or within care networks—are stepping forward to empower pathologists with new tools.

The backbone of these tools will be information technology. By digitizing the once manual process of setting slides on stages, adjusting focus points, and using the naked eye to measure and assess samples, pathology can serve patients in new and powerful ways. A digital pathology platform not only can free valuable processing time but also enable a range of collaborative and diagnostic tools. Digitized slides are easier to share, make specialists more accessible, facilitate more consistent measurements, and lend themselves to mass data analysis. Working in a digital platform also facilitates the consumption and communication of the growing discoveries in molecular and genomic testing.

While the opportunity for investing in digital pathology is great, the consequences for not pursuing digital pathology are also significant. Pathologists will not be able to escape the corner they find themselves in: caught between rising cancer rates, rising demand for new tests, and declining numbers of available pathologists. But with new tools, pathology can rise to deliver an elevated level of patient-centered care.

Digital pathology represents a key opportunity to fight back against cancer. This potential ultimately translates to more value for the patient, even in the wake of growing cancer rates.

  1. World Health Organization. www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs297/en/. Accessed November 2014.
  2. Association of American Medical Colleges Center for Workforce Studies. 2012 Physician Specialty Data Book.

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