Why digital pathology should leverage the cloud

Whitepaper

Digital pathology promises to revolutionize the field with stronger collaboration and faster access to data. But how can providers securely store such massive images?

Vandana Mallempati, Digital Pathology Director of Product Management, Iron Mountain
Vandana Mallempati
Digital Pathology Director of Product Management, Iron Mountain
August 2, 202312 mins
Why digital pathology should leverage the cloud

Not since the 19th-century development of the microscope has the field of pathology been in such a revolutionary state. The emerging discipline of digital pathology has practitioners and healthcare providers worldwide rethinking their processes and plans. 

In traditional pathology, pathologists examine tissue samples under a microscope to reach findings. This process is digitized in digital pathology, creating high-resolution images of entire glass slides—a capability that promises advancements in collaboration and medical training.

The UK government, for one, has invested the equivalent of USD 66M in scaling up national digital pathology and imaging. Globally, the digital pathology market is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 7.7% from 2023 to 2030.

Digital pathology comes with a lot of potential advantages. It will positively impact resource shortages and enhance education, especially in developing nations; facilitate collaboration across geographic regions; potentially result in higher quality and greater precision; and enable timesaving, error-reducing artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities.

While many medical professionals are excited by this monumental shift, others have expressed serious concerns. It’s not just nostalgia for what might be the bygone days of standing over microscopes. It’s a more practical concern: How will labs and other facilities store all their digital data? 

The size of the issue

The high cost of new infrastructure could be what’s keeping traditional light microscopy in its position as the gold standard of pathology. But the future of pathology is digital—eventually. 

The digital pathology workflow is decidedly different. It’s not just about scanning and digitizing slides, adding metadata, and simply storing them for safe access. The extremely high resolution of these detail-intensive images makes finding the proper storage solution a real challenge. Scanned whole-slide images generate large amounts of data, often exceeding 1 GB each, that need proper storage. Consider the impact of scanning and storing thousands of slides per day. 

Healthcare organizations have already started developing storage strategies to ensure their digital pathology programs will be affordable and sustainable. Many are looking into various archiving solutions and approaches. 

Is the cloud the answer?

As with almost every industry, cloud technologies answer some of digital pathology’s trickiest challenges. In fact, among Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, the research firm listed optimized technologist delivery—defined as technology focused on delivering value through cloud data components to accelerate product and service delivery.

In pathology, the benefits of cloud storage include cyber security support to protect patient information, the flexibility to scale depending on needs and budget, and a reduced deployment time for digital pathology programs. 

Experts agree that the cloud is the way forward. Without the cloud, a healthcare organization could not sustainably store multiple petabytes of data in-house—for reasons of data size, accessibility, and security. On the issue of security, however, many providers still voice strong concerns about data breaches.

The healthcare industry has been plagued by cyberattacks, with hundreds of data breaches currently under investigation, affecting more than 39 million people. Attacks on hospitals, clinical laboratories, and other medical organizations put every patient’s protected health information at risk.

A deeper look at storage options

There's much to consider in implementing a digital pathology program, from hardware such as scanners to intangibles like interoperability and adherence to standards. When it comes to storage, many labs and other facilities are looking at two deployment options: on-premises or in the cloud. 

Pathology departments choosing an on-premises deployment will host their data on their own servers. This move could leverage existing capital investments in IT infrastructure, networking, and cybersecurity. However, it’s likely not sustainable. As organizations scale their digital pathology workloads, in-house servers could become overrun, necessitating costly additional investments.

Pathology departments opting for a cloud-based deployment will not have to worry about volume or scale per se. But this option is only partially carefree. Healthcare providers must ensure their current local network infrastructure can support the data exchange—enabling quick, daily access to large volumes of images sized 1 to 5 GB—without affecting performance.

What’s next?

On the precipice of transformation in pathology, healthcare providers must make many strategic decisions. How to store the data will be among the most important. 

Cloud storage shows promise for scalability and accessibility. Yet it comes with data security and privacy challenges. Cyber threats escalate daily as more health information moves to digital formats. Going forward, cloud service providers and healthcare organizations will have to work together to develop comprehensive security frameworks that instill confidence in patients and practitioners.

The benefits of digital pathology—from enhanced collaboration to cost efficiencies—can outweigh the risks if programs are deployed responsibly. A steadfast commitment to robust security measures must accompany any successful integration of cloud-based solutions. This will set a solid foundation for deploying AI tools and other innovative capabilities that can propel pathology work even further into its new era.

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The experts at Iron Mountain have decades of experience in data security and firsthand knowledge of cloud storage best practices.
They are also deeply involved in the emerging field of digital pathology.

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