HIMSS names SMC a ‘world leader’ in digital pathology and awards the South Korean Healthcare provider Stage 7 DIAM status
Anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratory managers in hospitals know that during surgery, time is of the essence. While the patient is still on the surgical table, biopsies must be sent to the lab to be frozen and sectioned before going to the surgical pathologist for reading. Thus, shortening time to answer for frozen sections is a significant benefit.
This effort in surgical pathology is part of a larger story of the digital transformation underway across all service lines at this hospital. For years, SMC has been on track to become one of the world’s “intelligent hospitals,” and it is succeeding. In February, SMC became the first healthcare provider to achieve Stage 7 in the HIMSS Digital Imaging Adoption Model (DIAM), which “assesses an organization’s capabilities in the delivery of medical imaging,” Healthcare IT News reported.
As pathologists and clinical laboratory leaders know, implementation of digital pathology is no easy feat. So, it’s noteworthy that SMC has brought together disparate technologies to reduce turnaround times, and that the medical center has caught the eye of leading health information technology (HIT) organizations.
“The digital pathology system established by the pathology department and SMC’s information strategy team could be one of the good examples of the fourth industrial revolution model applied to a hospital system,” anatomic pathologist Kee Taek Jang, MD (above), Professor of Pathology, Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine, Samsung Medical Center told Healthcare IT News. Clinical laboratory leaders and surgical pathologists understand the value digital pathology can bring to faster turnaround times. (Photo copyright: Samsung Medical Center.)
Anatomic Pathologists Can Read Frozen Sections on Their Smartphones
Prior to implementation of its 5G digital pathology system, surgeons and their patients waited as much as 20 minutes for anatomic pathologists to traverse SMC’s medical campus to reach the healthcare provider’s cancer center diagnostic reading room, Healthcare IT News reported.
Now, SMC’s integrated digital pathology system—which combines slide scanners, analysis software, and desktop computers with a 5G network—has enabled a “rapid imaging search across the hospital,” Healthcare IT News noted. Surgical pathologists can analyze tissue samples faster and from remote locations on digital devices that are convenient to them at the time, a significant benefit to patient care.
“The system has been effective in reducing the turnaround time as pathologists can now attend to frozen test consultations on their smartphone or tablet device via 5G network anywhere in the hospital,” Jean-Hyoung Lee, SMC’s Manager of IT Infrastructure, told Healthcare IT News which noted these system results:
TAT decreased from 20 minutes to 10 minutes.
Transferring scans of large frozen tissues up to three gigabyte in size is now possible through the 5G network.
Additionally, through the 5G network, pathologists can efficiently access CT scans and MRI data on proton therapy cancer treatments. Prior to the change, the doctors had to download the image files in SMC’s Proton Therapy Center, according to a news release from KT Corporation, a South Korean telecommunications company that began working with SMC on building the 5G-connected digital pathology system in 2019.
DIAM is an approach for gauging an organization’s medical imaging delivery capabilities. To achieve Stage 7—External Image Exchange and Patient Engagement—healthcare providers must also have achieved all capabilities outlined in Stages 5 and 6.
In addition, the following must also have been adopted:
The majority of image-producing service areas are exchanging and/or sharing images and reports and/or clinical notes based on recognized standards with care organizations of all types, including local, regional, or national health information exchanges.
The application(s) used in image-producing service areas support multidisciplinary interactive collaboration.
Patients can make appointments, and access reports, images, and educational content specific to their individual situation online.
Patients are able to electronically upload, download, and share their images.
“This is the most comprehensive use of integrated digital pathology we have seen,” Andrew Pearce, HIMSS VP Analytics and Global Advisory Lead, told Healthcare IT News.
SMC’s Manager of IT Planning Seungho Lim told Healthcare IT News the medical center’s goal is to become “a global advanced intelligent hospital through digital health innovation.” The plan is to offer, he added, “super-gap digital services that prioritize non-contact communication and cutting-edge technology.”
For pathologists and clinical laboratory leaders, SMC’s commitment to 5G to move digital pathology data is compelling. And its recognition by HIMSS could inspire more healthcare organization to make changes in medical laboratory workflows. SMC, and perhaps other South Korean healthcare providers, will likely continue to draw attention for their healthcare IT achievements.
Studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference point to the p-tau217 protein as an especially useful biomarker
Researchers disclosed a potentially useful biomarker for Alzheimer’s Disease at a major conference this summer. The good news for clinical laboratories is that the biomarker is found in blood. If further research confirms these early findings, medical laboratories could one day have a diagnostic test for this condition.
That possibility emerged from the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC), which was held online July 27-31. Researchers presented findings from multiple studies that suggested blood/plasma levels of a protein known as phospho-tau217 (p-tau217) can indicate brain anomalies associated with Alzheimer’s.“Changes in brain proteins amyloid and tau, and their formation into clumps known as plaques and tangles, respectively, are defining physical features of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain,” states an AAIC press release. “Buildup of tau tangles is thought to correlate closely with cognitive decline. In these newly reported results, blood/plasma levels of p-tau217, one of the forms of tau found in tangles, also seem to correlate closely with buildup of amyloid.”
At present, “there is no single diagnostic test that can determine if a person has Alzheimer’s disease,” the association states on its website. Clinicians will typically review a patient’s medical history and conduct tests to evaluate memory and other everyday thinking skills. That may help determine that an individual has dementia, but not necessarily that Alzheimer’s is the cause.
“Currently, the brain changes that occur before Alzheimer’s dementia symptoms appear can only be reliably assessed by positron-emission tomography (PET) scans, and from measuring amyloid and tau proteins in [cerebrospinal] fluid (CSF),” the association states. “These methods are expensive and invasive. And, too often, they are unavailable because they are not covered by insurance or difficult to access, or both.”
In the AAIC press release, Alzheimer’s Association Chief Science Officer Maria C. Carrillo, PhD, said that a clinical laboratory blood test “would fill an urgent need for simple, inexpensive, non-invasive and easily available diagnostic tools for Alzheimer’s.
“New testing technologies could also support drug development in many ways,” she added. “For example, by helping identify the right people for clinical trials, and by tracking the impact of therapies being tested. The possibility of early detection and being able to intervene with a treatment before significant damage to the brain from Alzheimer’s disease would be game changing for individuals, families, and our healthcare system.”
However, she cautioned, “these are early results, and we do not yet know how long it will be until these tests are available for clinical use. They need to be tested in long-term, large-scale studies, such as Alzheimer’s clinical trials.”
The study, led by Oskar Hansson, MD, of Lund University in Sweden, included 1,402 participants. About half of these were enrolled in BioFINDER-2, an ongoing dementia study in Sweden. In this group, researchers were most interested in the test’s ability to distinguish Alzheimer’s from other neurodegenerative disorders that cause dementia.
Diagnostic accuracy was between 89% and 98%, the researchers reported, which was similar to the performance of PET imaging and CSF tests. P-tau217 was more accurate than magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as well as other biomarkers, such as p-tau181.
Here, the researchers’ primary goal was to determine the test’s ability to distinguish between individuals with and without Alzheimer’s. Researchers ran the p-tau217 test on plasma samples collected within 2.9 years of death and compared the results to postmortem examinations of the brain tissue. Accuracy was 89% in individuals with amyloid plaques and tangles, and 98% in individuals with plaques and more extensive tangles.
The third cohort consisted of 622 members of a large extended family in Colombia whose members share a genetic mutation that makes them susceptible to early-onset Alzheimer’s, The New York Times reported. Among the members, 365 were carriers of the mutation. In this group, levels of plasma p-tau217 increased by age, and “a significant difference from noncarriers was seen at age 24.9 years,” the researchers wrote in Jama Network. That’s about 20 years before the median age when mild cognitive impairment typically begins to appear in carriers.
Other Alzheimer Biomarker Studies Presented at AAIC
Suzanne Schindler, MD, PhD, a neurologist and instructor in the Department of Neurology at the Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM) in St. Louis, presented results of an Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) study that used mass spectrometry to analyze amyloid and p-tau variants in blood samples collected from participants. The researchers compared these with CSF and PET results and found that some of the of p-tau isoforms, especially p-tau217, had a strong concordance.
“These findings indicate that blood plasma Aβ and p-tau measures are highly precise biomarkers of brain amyloidosis, tauopathy, and can identify stages of clinical and preclinical AD,” stated an AAIC press release on the studies.
For decades, physicians have wanted a diagnostic test for Alzheimer’s Disease that could identify this condition early in its development. This would allow the patient and the family to make important decisions before the onset of severe symptoms. Such a clinical laboratory test would be ordered frequently and thus would be a new source of revenue for medical laboratories.
The AP story noted that “half a dozen research groups gave new results on various experimental tests, including one that seems 88% accurate at indicating Alzheimer’s risk.” And Richard Hodes, MD, Director of the National Institute on Aging, told AP, “In the past year, we’ve seen a dramatic acceleration in progress [on Alzheimer’s tests]. This has happened at a pace that is far faster than any of us would have expected.”
This could be a boon for medical laboratories seeking way to contribute more value to patient care. Especially among Alzheimer’s patients, who account for as many as 70% of all dementia cases.
Plasma Biomarker for Predicting Alzheimer’s
One of the experimental blood tests presented at the AAIC involved a 2018 study into “the potential clinical utility of plasma biomarkers in predicting brain amyloid-β burden at an individual level. These plasma biomarkers also have cost-benefit and scalability advantages over current techniques, potentially enabling broader clinical access and efficient population screening,” the researchers stated an article they published in Nature.
AP also reported that Japanese scientists at the AAIC
presented results of a validation test conducted on 201 people who had either
Alzheimer’s, other types of dementia, or little or no symptoms. They found that
the test “correctly identified 92% of people who had Alzheimer’s and correctly
ruled out 85% who did not have it, for an overall accuracy of 88%.”
Akinori Nakamura, MD, PhD, of the National Center for
Geriatrics and Gerontology in Obu, Japan, was a member of the research team and
first author of the research paper. He told the AP that the test results “closely
matched those from the top tests used now—three types of brain scans and a
mental assessment exam.”
Koichi Tanaka is a Japanese engineer who won the Nobel prize winner for chemistry. He heads the Koichi Tanaka Research Lab at Shimadzu Corp. (OTCMKTS:SHMZF) in Kyoto, Japan, and was on the team that developed the Amyloid beta biomarker test that was presented at AAIC. He told Bloomberg, “Our finding overturned the common belief that it wouldn’t be possible to estimate amyloid accumulation in the brain from blood. We’re now being chased by others, and the competition is intensifying.”
But Tanaka cautions that the test needs further study before
it is ready for clinical use, and that for now “it belongs in the hands of drug
developers and research laboratories,” Bloomberg reported.
Other Studies into Developing an Alzheimer’s Biomarker
Alzheimer’s is usually diagnosed after symptoms appear, such
as memory loss. To arrive at their diagnoses, doctors often rely on medical
history, brain imaging (MRI, CT), PET, and measurement of amyloid in spinal
An article published on Alzforum, a website and news service dedicated to the research and treatment for Alzheimer’s and other related disorders, noted a study by King’s College London researchers who, using mass spectrometry, “found a panel of biomarkers that predicted with almost 90% accuracy whether cognitively normal people had a positive amyloid scan.”
Nicholas Ashton, PhD, neuroscientist and Wallenberg Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and first author of the King’s College study, explained that “Amyloid-burden and neurofilament light polypeptide (NFL) peptides were important in predicting Alzheimer’s, but alone they weren’t as predictable as when we combined them with novel proteins related to amyloid PET.”
The researchers published their study earlier this year in Science Advances. “Using an unbiased mass spectrometry approach, we have found and replicated with high accuracy, specificity, and sensitivity a plasma protein classifier reflecting amyloid-beta burden in a cognitively unimpaired cohort,” the researchers wrote.
“This is something that would be easy to incorporate into a screening test in a neurology clinic,” Brian Gordon, PhD, Assistant Professor of Radiology at Washington University’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, and an author of the study, stated in the news release.
These parallel studies into screening for Alzheimer’s by
researchers worldwide are intriguing. The favorable results suggest that
someday there may be a screen for Alzheimer’s using a clinical laboratory blood
With Alzheimer’s affecting nearly six million Americans of all ages, such an assay would enable clinical laboratories to help many people.
Now, a 3D-printed MRI-guided robotic biopsy system under development by researchers in the Netherlands may change how biopsies are performed and lead to more accurate biopsies and breast cancer diagnoses. Successful conclusion to this research could impact surgical pathology and medical laboratories worldwide.
“The Stormram 4 is a stimulus for the entire diagnostic phase of breast cancer,” the University of Twente (UT) stated in a press release. “Medical robotics is sure to become standard procedure in hospitals in the near future.”
The robotic system, dubbed Stormram 4, would be used to remove biological specimens during an MRI scan, not unlike today’s current biopsy procedures. However, the robotic system allows for sub-millimeter precision control of a single, thin biopsy needle.
The Stormram 4 (above) breast biopsy robot, developed by researchers at the University of Twente in The Netherlands, is constructed of 3D-printed plastic that is driven by rectilinear and curved air-pressure motors. This allows it to fit inside an MRI scanner’s narrow tunnel and operate while an MRI scan is taking place. Early research indicates that this device might make it possible to more precisely biopsy breast cancer tissue during surgery, thus improving the quality of the biopsies referred to anatomic pathologists. Click on the photo above to see a video of the robot in action. (Photo copyright: University of Twente.)
Billed as the world’s smallest 3D-printed biopsy robot, Stormram 4 offers major advantages over conventional MRI-navigated biopsy techniques, according to Groenhuis. The robot offers sub-millimeter precision, which was achieved during tests conducted on models of breasts.
“The manual MRI-guided breast biopsy procedure is time-consuming and ineffective,” Groenhuis told Digital Trends. “It uses a thick needle, extracting large tissue samples, often in multiple attempts, to extract a representative biopsy sample.”
In contrast, he explained, “The robotic system can manipulate the needle more precisely toward target coordinates of the lesion inside the body, on the first attempt. This will improve the accuracy of the biopsy procedure compared to the current manual practice. Secondly, the needle insertion can be performed inside the MRI scanner itself, so that the needle can be followed under nearly real-time imaging guidance. The required time to perform the biopsy is also shorter, allowing more effective use of the MRI scanner facilities.”
Building a Robot Compatible with MRI Environment
Creating a robotic system that would be compatible with an MRI machine was the first hurdle researchers had to overcome. It meant metallic materials could not be used within the magnetic chamber of the MRI scanner. Researchers turned to 3D printing to create the Stormram 4 entirely from plastic. And they powered the system using “rectilinear and curved air pressure motors.”
“Current robotic systems cannot be used inside the MRI due to the high magnetic field,” Groenhuis explained in the Digital Trends article, “and therefore we initiated the development of an MRI-compatible robotic system for breast biopsy.”
It took several attempts to build a version of Stormram that would fit inside an MRI bore. The fourth iteration succeeded. Operators control the robot using five-meter-long air pipes operated from outside of the scanner to prevent the metal air valves used to drive the robot from interfering with the scan.
Though the device is in its final stage of development, Groenhuis told Digital Trends the Stormram 4 will need several years of additional development and trials to receive regulatory approval.
Robotics Expected to Improve Surgical Outcomes
Stormram 4 recently won a prestigious award in the 2017 Surgical Robotic Challenge at the international Hamlyn Symposium in London, the university noted in its press release. But the Stormram 4 is not the only surgical robot making headlines. MRI-compatible surgical robots offer the promise of becoming revolutionary tools as researchers develop machines to improve a range of surgical outcomes.
These and other technology breakthroughs are changing the practice of surgical pathology. Consequently, clinical laboratories and In Vitro diagnostics (IVD) developers should expect be impacted as well.
Recognizing the need to serve patients with high-deductible health plans, hospital systems are opening healthcare centers in outpatient settings where patients can receive care and undergo procedures—including clinical laboratory tests—more conveniently and for less cost
Health systems are putting medical imaging services, such as MRIs, in strip malls and shopping centers as a way to make it easier for patients. Such locations can also offer lower-cost procedures because of lower overhead compared to imaging centers located in hospitals. This trend to offer patients more convenient service at a lower cost is something that clinical laboratory managers and pathologists should watch and understand.
One driver behind this trend is the growing number of Americans enrolled in High Deductible Health Plans (HDHPs), where deductibles can exceed $6,000 for individuals and $12,000 for families. With such high deductibles, patients are now keenly focused on the cost of their healthcare. Medical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups have been impacted by this trend, as more patients shell out cash to pay for walk-in procedures and providers must collect full payments for services rendered.
Hospitals and health systems recognize the increased demand for outpatient, lower-priced medical services, along with price transparency. Patients with HDHPs are one reason why hospital bad debt is growing.
Healthcare Shopping Drives Lower Costs and Convenience
Price shopping on the Internet for medical services also is becoming more popular due to the availability of online doctor and facility ratings and easily-accessible price comparisons.
There are more than 7,000 stand-alone imaging centers in the US that operate independently of hospitals. About 70% of diagnostic imaging services occur in hospital settings with the other 30% performed in outpatient facilities.
According to Amino, a healthcare transparency company based in San Francisco, the cost for an MRI can vary significantly depending on where a patient lives and what type of facility is utilized for the test. Their research found that the cost of a limb MRI can range from hundreds of dollars at a freestanding facility to as much as $4,000 at a hospital. In some states, the price difference between getting an MRI at a hospital versus a stand-alone facility was almost $2,000. The average cost of having an MRI performed in a hospital setting is $2600.
Based on data from Amino, the graphic above illustrates the wide range of prices for MRIs throughout the country, and the cost disparity between hospital and free-standing medical imaging centers. In the future, pathologists and clinical laboratory managers can expect to see the publication of similar graphs that show the variation in the cost of clinical laboratory tests and anatomic pathology procedures, not just by state, but by individual laboratories. (Graphic copyright: MBO.)
Smart Choice MRI, based in Mequon, Wis., charges a maximum price of $600 for an MRI. The company now has 17 locations in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, but plans to have 90 facilities within the next three years.
“The rise of high deductible health plans has fueled consumers who understand their options and demand a higher level of service from their providers,” Rick Anderson, Chief Executive Officer of Smart Choice MRI told the StarTribune. “Quality, service-focused care at a fair, transparent price has never been more important.”
Anderson added that his company can handle 94% of MRI procedures in their convenient, freestanding imaging facilities.
“I think the quality is very good, but we’ve combined the cost and quality, and most importantly the convenience of being in the neighborhood where people are shopping,” Anderson said. “If you look at our Richfield (Minnesota) location, we’re literally next to SuperTarget, Caribou Coffee, Noodles and Company, and Qdoba.”
Public and Private Health Insurers Shift Payments to Free-standing Facilities
Anthem recently announced they will no longer pay for outpatient MRIs and CT scans performed at hospitals in almost all of the states where the health insurer does business. They are requiring patients to have the tests performed in free-standing imaging facilities in an effort to cut costs and lower premiums. This change could affect 4.5 million people in 13 of the 14 states Anthem serves, with New Hampshire being the exception.
Diagnostic imaging is not the only medical service transitioning to outpatient facilities.
In July, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that it is considering payment approval for total hip and knee replacements performed in outpatient settings. This change could go into effect as early as next year.
According to Steve Miller, Chief Operating Officer at Ambulatory Surgery Center Association, an estimated 25-50% of joint replacements could be performed on an outpatient basis.
“There’s more and more comfort among surgeons who are coming out of residencies where they trained to do surgeries on an outpatient basis,” Miller told Modern Healthcare. “The volumes are doubling year over year.”
Surgeons Approve of Free-standing Surgery Centers
There are currently more than 5,500 ambulatory surgery centers in the country and upwards of 200 of those facilities are performing outpatient joint replacement procedures. Three years ago, there were only around 25 facilities providing these services.
In 2015, there were more than 658,000 total hip and knee replacements performed on Medicare beneficiaries, according to CMS data. In 2014, the government paid more than $7 billion for the hospitalization costs of these two procedures. The CMS estimates that the cost for uncomplicated knee replacement surgeries in 2018 will be $12,381 for an inpatient procedure and $9,913 for the outpatient rate.
Physicians feel that performing joint replacements in outpatient facilities could reduce costs by up to 50%.
“I could do maybe 20% of my Medicare patients on an outpatient basis, as long as they have the support and structure at home to help them recover,” said Matthew Weresh, MD, a physician at Des Moines Orthopedic Surgeons (DMOS) in the Modern Healthcare article. “It’s a great move by Medicare.” DMOS plans to begin performing joint replacements at an ambulatory surgery center later this year.
Pathologists would be wise to monitor this trend and anticipate how anatomic pathology services might shift towards lower-cost settings. For clinical laboratories, this trend further illustrates the need to prepare for more consumers paying cash for their medical services and seeking cost-effective, high-quality options.