Scientist in pathology lab

'Enormous' digital pathology update to reduce cancer backlog

NHS patients across the West Midlands are set to benefit from a new digital pathology programme that will help reduce backlog, update services, and make cancer diagnoses more efficient.

Coming in as one of the biggest pathology programmes on the continent, the West Midlands Cancer Alliance initiative will serve almost six million people across four pathology networks, spanning 17 NHS trusts.

By providing pathologists with the digital equipment necessary, the programme will help the West Midlands health sector strengthen collaboration, share insight and expertise, triage urgent cases more effectively, and better manage the growing demand across the region.

The programme has already seen the four pathology networks deploy a Picture Archiving and Communications System (PACS), which allows health professionals to access and analyse diagnostic images with a range of tools, as well as giving them the ability to collaborate in real-time with colleagues – regardless of where they are.

Phil Williams, NHS England’s head of digital transformation for the Midlands, said: “The significance and scale of this programme is enormous. Bringing four pathology networks together on one platform allows for mutual support and image sharing throughout a huge geographical area, where there are multiple trauma centres, millions of patients and increasingly in-demand pathology services. The technology we have deployed is an enabler for sharing reporting capacity across the West Midlands – giving us the tools on which we can accelerate the strategic long term service transformation that is already underway to allow NHS services and professionals to work together around the needs of patients.

“Our programme, which uses private cloud, gives us the scalability and flexibility we need. The platform is also based on standards, allowing it to interoperate with other NHS systems and enabling us to take data out of silos, opening new possibilities to inform potentially life-saving research.

“Deploying the platform at this scale will also allow us to leverage AI on an equitable and effective basis – with the ability to trial emerging applications in one location and share learnings regionwide.”

As Mr Williams alludes to, the work constitutes the largest change to the region’s pathology services in over a century, meaning pathologists can ditch the microscopes and glass slides and get accustomed to instant high-resolution digital images that can be viewed anywhere at any time.

Also commenting on the project was Professor Neil Anderson, NHS Midlands regional pathology clinical lead and chief scientist at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust. He said: “This is one of the most significant events in the last century around how our pathologists work and how that could lead to cancer pathway improvement.

“The earlier you can detect cancer, there is the potential for better outcomes for patients. This technology speeds up the process and reporting through the Pathology Departments, but also allows teams to work between hospitals enabling them to report on images from anywhere in the region which will support faster, better cancer diagnosis.”

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NHE May/June 2024

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