What may become a key advancement in the way oncologists treat patients is actually an innovation in pathology.
While oncologists take the lead in studying tumors and prescribing treatment, they rely on pathologists for diagnoses. Every biopsy is delivered to a pathologist. The pathologist reads the sample, makes an assessment, and communicates the results to the oncologist. The oncologist then shares that diagnosis with the patient and recommends a course of care. In the vast majority of cases, the patient never meets the pathologist. In fact, patients may not even know that a pathologist was a supporting specialist in their care.
Pathologists are disconnected from the care team and are not engaged with patients largely because of the limitations of traditional pathology. The current norm of making diagnoses from physical slides limits collaboration and communication. Slides cannot easily be shared with other pathologists, and they do not lend themselves well to patient walk-throughs or conversations.
By stripping away the restrictions of physical slides, digital pathology has the potential to empower patients and to reconnect pathologists with care teams. Digitized specimens can help to take the voices of pathologists out of laboratories and into the conversations that oncologists are having with patients—regardless of proximity to the original physical specimens.
Where oncologists may have sent their patients’ samples to a single pathology lab, they could now create a digital scan of a specimen relatively quickly and share it with pathologists of their choosing, potentially accelerating and improving the quality of care. Patients could now be shown the images from their biopsy slides. They could ask questions to their pathologist. They could learn more about the pathologist working on their case. And they could even request specific specialists to review their case without creating shipping challenges for the lab.
Beyond the immediacy and collaboration that digital pathology could foster, examining specimens in a digital environment sets the stage for new tools. With a uniform, automated process for scanning large numbers of slides—versus manually photographing specimens—pathologists can spend more time analyzing samples and less time manipulating and managing physical case packages. They could create large databases of specimens where they could use data analytics to search for patterns and trends.
All of these potential developments could help benefit patients and better equip oncologists to prescribe care. With pathologists offering the diagnoses that form the foundation for the care that many patients receive, a paradigm shift in this early stage of the treatment process may produce consequences that could be far-reaching, rippling through the entirety of the oncological process and throughout health care in general. Digital pathology is poised to change the way we—from patients to professionals—interact with pathologists for cancer care and health care as a whole.
The technology and processes involved in digital pathology are innovative and groundbreaking. In future posts, we will explore the application of digital pathology, the current generation of tools available in digital pathology, case studies of health care systems and professionals using digital pathology, and where digital pathology is likely to go in the future.