Digital technology has impacted virtually every part of modern medicine, encouraging greater collaboration, efficiency and care, leading to better patient outcomes. In some fields, the potential benefits of technology are only beginning to be uncovered. Pathologists, for instance, have traditionally relied on microscopes to review physical tissue samples prepared on glass slides to make their diagnoses. With digital pathology, DynaLIFE Medical Labs (DynaLIFE) is looking to change that.
“Through digital pathology, we’re able improve our accuracy, make our work more cost effective, and improve patient outcomes,” says Dr. Raymond Lai, Medical Director at DynaLIFE. “It’s changing the way we work, and it has huge potential for patients all across Alberta.”
Digital pathology allows pathologists to view and analyze tissues on their computer screen, viewing multiple images in great detail at once. It uses batch scanners to create digital, high-resolution images of prepared slides, which are then immediately available to pathologists – whether they’re in the same city, or even around the world. This eliminates the need for transportation of physical samples, thereby reducing room for error and wait times for results.
“One of the benefits of this technology is the ability to take advantage of long-distance consultation. When the slides are processed, they can be easily transmitted and viewed at once,” says Dr. Lai. “In a clinical setting, this means experts from five or six different places could be meeting to review and zoom in on different aspects of a sample, and discuss it in real time.”
For patients in rural or remote communities, this leads to faster diagnoses. But even for patients in larger urban centres, the technology can help to ensure faster and more accurate diagnoses, thanks to tools built into the software that allow for digital marking, measurement and review of tissue samples.
“Pathology is a team-based profession,” says Dr. Tyler Verdun, pathologist at DynaLIFE. “And it can be quite subjective—there are a lot of grey areas which can generate disagreement. What this technology does is help to reduce some of that subjectivity by ensuring more accurate and consistent measurement.”
Digital pathology also offers great potential for researchers. While physical slides could be stored and used for research purposes, their quality degrades over time. In contrast, digital slides can be catalogued and easily accessed for review, without the risk of the materials degrading. In addition, using artificial intelligence and machine learning technology, data can be extracted from these slides, increasing precision and improving the potential for better, earlier diagnoses.
“In the last few years, the technology has changed dramatically,” says Dr. Gilbert Bigras, medical lead of the Edmonton Zone Immunohistochemistry Laboratory with Alberta Health Services. “The key advantage DynaLIFE has here is that they’re working with the University of Alberta, which is a centre for AI and machine learning innovation. These fields have a lot to bring to pathology.”
Researchers are already testing the use of AI in scanning and diagnosing polyps, with promising results and accuracy rates of over 90 percent. In the future, these tools could be used to triage samples, meaning more complex samples would be flagged for pathologist and expert review.
“Once we have algorithms that have been validated, we can run them on slides to say, ‘These need deeper levels of review,’ or ‘This is benign,’” says Mary Melnyk, Medical Affairs Manager at DynaLIFE. “We’re making huge strides already, but as we move forward, it’ll change everything.”
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