Companies active in digital pathology frequently use the term “open” to describe some aspect of the technology. “Open” has as many meanings in digital pathology — from regulatory to software to operation – depending on the point of view of the person speaking. To me, the most important aspect of openness is what it means to a consumer of digital pathology, be it a researcher or practicing pathologist. These are, after all, the individuals who use the technology day-to-day and whose professions it most influences. If openness doesn’t make things easier for the researcher or the pathologist, then what purpose does it serve?
As an example from the world of consumer technology, consider the Android operating system. When I purchased my first smartphone, one of the main factors that persuaded me to go with a “Droid” was that its open platform gave me confidence that, no matter what application I wanted and no matter what accessories I purchased, I would be able to synchronize all of my apps, devices, and add-ons with the phone. It’s not that I thought that Apple products couldn’t keep up — Apple’s products are works of art, and I understand the appeal of sticking with the “i”-products. I simply felt that there would almost certainly come a time when I wanted a greater variety of choices and a greater flexibility in choosing the technologies that influence my day-to-day life.
Looking at the rapidly evolving field of digital pathology, I get the sense that there is a very similar choice to be made in the adoption of new technology. Every week there is a new product announcement about how new technologies are tackling the various challenges that a pathologist faces. From improvements in existing hardware and software to new startups and niche technologies, these products are bringing major advancements to cancer research, diagnosis, and treatment. However, this upwelling of new digital pathology technology also opens us up to the headaches of adopting a technologies that don’t integrate well with an existing or future digital pathology setup. Just as my choice of a phone two years ago was driven by availability of future apps, users of digital pathology are also concerned that their technology choices today will work with technologies being brought to market two or three years from now.
The solution, as I see it, is to adopt technology that is, from the consumer’s perspective, “open.” Used here, open does not refer specifically to a regulatory or technical set of requirements. Rather, it means that whatever system or technology is adopted should, at a minimum, be interoperable (and preferably work well) with any digital pathology technology. This include slide scanners, hosting solutions, viewing portals, telepathology tools, image analysis modules, and many other commonly used digital pathology applications. In essence, the question of interoperability, compatibility, and openness should be addressed behind-the-scenes, and make the experience for the consumer as easy and straightforward as possible. Open technologies enable pathologists to focus on pathology, not on IT.
Such openness is a tall order, to be sure. But what’s interesting is that it’s harder to envision a system of technologies that is not open than one which is. Every company involved in digital pathology, be it software or hardware, has a role to play in creating this open environment. At Proscia, we try to create an open platform by accommodating any image format, synchronizing with most scanners, and providing a framework for interfacing with other software. That openness has paid off in [our recent partnership with Huron Digital Pathology], and we are exploring other similar relationships. For other companies, openness may come in different flavors and with different nuances. Regardless, the key element to choosing new technologies is the same for pathology as it is for picking a phone — the expectation of openness, ease of integration and future adaptability dictates adoption.