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Inside the Lab Digital and computational pathology, Laboratory management, Guidelines and recommendations

Unlocking Technological Potential

In recent years, the field of digital pathology has witnessed remarkable advancements, offering laboratories unprecedented opportunities for efficiency, collaboration, and diagnostic accuracy – not to mention the mind-blowing power of machine learning. Despite these advancements, the procurement process for digital pathology solutions in the UK and Europe has often fallen short of delivering optimal outcomes for laboratories. Having personally visited numerous pathology labs and witnessed the challenges they face, I advocate for a modular procurement system that enables labs to select best-in-class solutions for each component of the digital pathology workflow.

The current procurement process for digital pathology solutions in the UK often involves labs tendering for the complete package, including computer workstations, high throughput scanners, mega slide scanners, image management system (IMS), and cloud storage. Although this may initially appear logical, it unintentionally limits labs from selecting the most suitable solutions tailored to their unique requirements.

In these cases, labs are trusting the company leading the tender submission (the IMS provider in this example) to assemble the best possible solution. However, this practice frequently results in the IMS provider partnering with the cheapest scanner and storage providers to create a proposal that only appears to be cost-effective. It’s important to note that to mitigate the risk of resorting to third-party solutions, there is often a 20-30% markup on price. As a consequence, labs often find themselves compromising and reluctantly accepting a combination of suboptimal solutions bundled together. For example, they may get a great IMS but this is almost worthless if the scanners producing the images have poor image quality. 

A modular procurement approach allows labs to evaluate and procure each area of the digital pathology platform separately. I would go as far as separating out the lots for the different types of scanners that the lab requires, such as one tender for a high throughput scanner and one for a slower, Z-stacking and mega slide scanner. By doing so, labs can choose the most advanced and tailored solutions for their specific needs. The modular approach empowers labs to select the best-in-class solution for each stage of the digital pathology workflow.

Here are five key benefits to the modular approach:

  1. Flexibility. Laboratories differ massively in workflows, slide volumes, and IT infrastructure. A modular procurement approach enables labs to customize their digital pathology platforms to suit their unique requirements, enhancing operational efficiency and productivity.
  2. Innovation. The field of digital pathology is rapidly evolving, with novel technologies and solutions continually emerging. A modular approach allows labs to incorporate cutting-edge tools and methodologies as they become available, ensuring they stay at the forefront of technological advancements. Procuring the entire solution locks the lab into a specific provider – often for 5–7 years.
  3. Scalability. As labs grow and their needs change, a modular approach facilitates easy scalability. Instead of being tied to an all-encompassing solution that may become obsolete or limit expansion, labs can seamlessly integrate new components into their existing platform.
  4. Cost efficiency. By evaluating and procuring each component separately, labs can make informed decisions based on cost-effectiveness. This approach avoids unnecessary expenses by selecting solutions that match the lab’s specific requirements, eliminating the burden of investing in features they may not need.
  5. Interoperability and collaboration. Modularity forces vendors to really think about integration – something that is technically difficult and therefore avoided where possible. They should prioritize compatibility and streamlined workflows between different components of the digital pathology platform. Collaborative efforts often result in standardized data formats, interfaces, and communication protocols – all things that the community have been working on in recent years. 

As the field of digital pathology continues to revolutionize diagnostic practices, it is crucial for procurement processes to adapt and unlock the full potential of these technologies. Granted, such a change will increase the timeframe and number of tenders that need to be managed by the laboratory workforce – a workforce that is already under-provisioned and overworked. But I believe that time savings down the line will likely outweigh this overhead. And who knows? Maybe it will also push NHS trusts and healthcare agencies to make a leaner tender process.

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About the Author
Callum Arthurs

Digital pathology researcher at Imperial College London and co-founder of machine learning pathology company Compath

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