By Judith Smith, Managing Director, Dedalus UK

The NHS has been facing one of the most challenging times in its history. Quite rightly, every ounce of energy, money and effort has been invested in fighting COVID-19, with medical interventions and digital services being implemented to provide vital care to everyone that needs it.

It’s at times like this, that interoperability and the ability to be able to access accurate information quickly, easily and with efficiency, is of utmost importance.

It not only ensures an individual healthcare organisation can identify, triage and treat vulnerable patients effectively, but on a regional and national level, it can help the NHS and government monitor and manage occupancy levels, A&E capacity, waittimes, and lengths of stay.

The information jigsaw puzzle
The benefits of linking different health systems, and having software talk to each other and share information, is a precious commodity in today’s healthcare environment. And some good progress has been made in recent years. For example, technology suppliers, including Dedalus, have come together with service providers and the central NHS bodies through action groups such as INTEROPen, to encourage the adoption of interoperability standards and prioritise the development of use cases.

However, one of the biggest remaining challenges is completing the information ‘jigsaw puzzle’, so that all of the patient’s data can follow them wherever they are, and whenever they need healthcare. And professionals across the care continuum can access and share this information quickly and easily.

To achieve this, the analogue services that feed into this puzzle – such as pathology – have to start incorporating digital processes and subsequently, contributing to the much needed holistic view of the patient. To move away from the current set-up, where a team of clinicians can only access certain information about a patient’s biopsies by visiting an on-site laboratory.

The virtues of digital pathology
There has never been greater pressure on pathologists to deliver their services, as they continue to face the challenge of an increasing workload and case complexity. This comes at a time when there is already a chronic shortage of pathologists working in the NHS, and the service as a whole is being consolidated into 29 regional networks in a bid to release £200m of cost savings.

Albeit a service that many wouldn’t consider easy to digitise due to the very nature of the anatomical process, the complete end-to-end tracking and workflow management of samples (from biopsy registrations to diagnosis, reporting and cloud storage) can be transformed. The onset of high resolution imagery and digital connectivity means that samples and glass slides no longer need to leave the lab. Similarly, collaborative diagnoses and second opinions from clinicians can be sought remotely using ‘virtual slides’ and effective online multi-disciplinary pathology platforms.

Rolling out these remote services will enable hospitals to share scarce specialist pathologists across a region. The well-documented virtues of digitising traditional, analogue processes will also deliver significant service improvements. This includes improving diagnostic accuracy and time efficiencies, which is particularly important at the moment, when resources are stretched and the need to share data is more important than ever, particularly with virologists.

By digitising elements of the pathway – which will hopefully be energised by the commitment of £168 million for digital pathology – the NHS will also be adding a significant piece to the jigsaw puzzle that hasn’t been possible before. Meaning a team of clinicians responsible can easily access and share information (including tissue samples and biopsies) on a single platform with multiple colleagues in different locations, in order to efficiently and safely plan the care of the patient.

Interpreting the data
Equally important as completing this jigsaw puzzle is interpreting the data, or more so, the picture it represents as a whole. The NHS needs to understand the information that sits across the care continuum, to allow for better and faster exchanges of knowledge, and for providers to respond to patient needs and improve the care pathway. This is particularly true at the moment, when it’s clear that healthcare is not local.

It’s why the steps taken recently by NHS Improvement, NHS England and NHSX to link-up health data for better reporting and analysis, to manage and plan for the unprecedented demand across the country, must be applauded.

Accessing and interpreting the right data at the right time will save lives. And the advancements that are being made in response to COVID-19 will hopefully accelerate the step-change in integration (underpinned by digitisation) that’s been needed for so long.

Changing for the future
One thing is for certain and that’s healthcare systems need to adapt, to ensure the learnings from the pandemic are taken forward. And with the government initiatives already in place to encourage digital transformation, pathology is primed to start using remote solutions and collaboration platforms to integrate into the information jigsaw puzzle. As standards of care evolve, this knowledge can be shared across multiple systems, on a local, regional and national level.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity, and change for the future.