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The government is setting out plans to improve the use of digital pathology in screening programmes across the health service.
The move comes as the UK National Screening Committee recommended in its November 2023 meeting that the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) works to increase the use of digital pathology to examine tissue samples.
The hope is that by introducing digital pathology, it will be easier to identify cancer and speed up diagnosis for patients.
Digital pathology includes whole slide imaging, which allows glass histopathology slides to be reviewed digitally, making it easier to share results or get a second opinion.
Health minister Andrew Stephenson said the earlier cancer is detected and treated, the “greater the chances of survival and recovery”.
“Cancer is already being diagnosed at an earlier stage, more often, and the NHS is seeing and treating record numbers of cancer patients,” he said. “Increased use of digital pathology will help the NHS to go further and faster and provide another weapon in our battle against cancer.”
NHS England is also expected to issue guidance to pathology teams across the NHS on the best way to use the technology. While there are some early adopters already utilising digital tissue images, microscopes and glass slides are still the norm across the NHS.
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In 2020, the UK National Screening Committee was requested by the National Coordinating Committee for Breast Pathology and the Royal College of Pathologists to look at the evidence for digital tissue images.
Mike Richards, chair of the UK National Screening Committee, said that alongside the National Institute for Health and Care Research, it sponsored “vital research to assess the effectiveness of this technique”.
“Following that research, I’m pleased that the UK National Screening Committee’s recommendation to allow the use of digital pathology has been approved,” he said. “Its use will support flexibility for pathologists and make sharing samples for second opinions or quality assurance easier and more efficient.”
The drive to increase digital pathology across the NHS is not new. In 2018, the government launched a competition aiming to build a network of digital pathology and medical imaging centres across the UK, and in 2019, five centres of excellence were established.
The centres issued a report in October 2023 on interoperability, recommending the creation of common standards across digital pathology in the NHS, as well as the establishment of guidelines for laboratory processes in digital pathology, utilising standardisation and normalisation.
In 2022, a group of 17 trusts across the West Midlands deployed a digital pathology system as part of their plan to transform cancer diagnosis in the region. The pathology programme covers four NHS pathology networks, bringing them together on the same platform, aiming to reduce variation in treatment and diagnosis, as well as improve patient outcomes.
Genomics England is also working on a project to link whole genome sequencing to digital pathology images, which it hopes has the potential to transform clinical trials and create targeted treatments for cancer patients.