As technology continues to play a larger role in the healthcare industry, the concept of telepathology has moved from an idea to a reality for pathologists. Although the technique still has a long way to go before it’s considered a primary diagnostic tool, its overall use has expanded significantly nonetheless. In a recent interview with ADVANCE, Maria Hernandez, MBA, BSMT (ASCP), and Dennis Matricardi, MS, SM(ASCP) DLM, clinical analysts at MD Buyline, provider of evidence-based, clinical and technology research for Healthcare systems nationwide, discussed the current and potential applications of telepathology for clinicians and physicians.
Originally utilized in imaging technologies, the transmission of images through digital files has spread into many areas of laboratory science, especially in the disciplines of hematology, microbiology and pathology. By converting otherwise physical aspects of patient care into digital files, pathologists can store and transmit the diagnostic information quickly and without need for physical storage. Currently, this technology is largely used in a second opinion capacity for pathology, but it is on the cusp of approval for primary screening and holds promise for many areas of medicine.
“It’s taking what’s on the glass slide and making that a photograph, in a sense, available through the internet and different sources,” said Matricardi. “So, that’s specific, but I think there might be other things they refer when they’re talking about telepathology. It may be, simply, pathologists communicating with each other over various types of things – not necessary just digitized slides.”
One of the largest areas of potential impact lies simply in ease-of-access to vital patient data, especially in more remote locations with less advanced testing equipment. This not only applies to international communities doing field research or outreach work onsite, but also to domestic hospitals and healthcare facilities that lack the funding for more advanced equipment and expertise. In this way, specialists and experts can become more available to give a second opinion and discuss a diagnosis with local physicians without physically being there.
“So, that a large facility, like the Mayo Clinic or the Cleveland Clinic, will look at remote images from very small hospitals in North Dakota or Idaho or Montana that don’t have access to the expertise that they do,” explained Matricardi. “And, in that situation, sure. I think that’s the goal – but again, it’s going to be expensive starting out.”
According to Hernandez, one of the biggest hurdles in the approval process simply comes down to storage. While digitized images can be more efficiently stored compared to physical records, these are markedly larger than typical digital files. In terms of access, the combined roles of the LIS and EMR in individual facilities working to incorporate telepathology will be substantial in the spread of the practice throughout the healthcare community. Not only will the storage capacity make it easier to incorporate, but the added standardization of could help to assist healthcare organizations as telepathology becomes more commonplace.
“They’re trying to pretty much standardize the storing and the processes, because it will make it easier for hospitals [that] already have a PAC system in place to adopt things like digital pathology,” she said.
Although telepathology is largely used for secondary opinions and hasn’t yet been approved for primary diagnosis, there is a growing movement in support of studies to determine the accuracy of the technique. One challenge facing the technique is the process of easing pathologists and clinicians into the new technology. Matricardi also noted that there remains a certain level of comfort when it comes to making a diagnosis using tools like microscopes and, thus, a reluctance to make the switch to utilize the digital images.