Histology is one of the few remaining areas in science that isn’t fully automated. But some trend watchers say it’s only a matter of time before the “last art form in medicine” uses fully automated processes—from embedding and staining tissues to cutting and mounting sections.
For some histologists, more automation raises more fears than cheers. Change of any sort can be uncomfortable, but replacing humans with machines could mean people’s livelihood is at stake.
But in this case, automation could be your greatest ally. Rather than putting people out of work, automated histology can enhance your career in significant ways.
Histology Needs Automation
Industry trends show that the demand for histology services is increasing, health care reimbursements are shrinking, and fewer trained histologists are entering the field each year. There’s more work to do, and fewer resources to handle it. Histology labs are facing greater pressure to process more specimens in shorter turnaround times—all while maintaining high slide quality and avoiding mix-ups.
Automation provides a release valve on that pressure. With automation, you can divert mundane tasks away from your personnel so that they can focus on more challenging work and high-skill activities.
Here are the top reasons that automation is a histologist’s greatest ally.
One of the greatest challenges to the histology lab is the increasing pressure to take on more cases with faster turnaround times. If you’re committed to manual production, you have to hire more histologists. That’s a solution that would shut down many labs (assuming you can find enough trained personnel to cover the demand).
The other option is to turn to automation. One of the first automation tools in histology was introduced in the 1970s, with automated tissue processors. More recently, barcoding and automated stainers hooked to coverslippers have had a tremendous impact on increasing efficiency in the lab.
The next wave of development is automated microtomy. Automating the process of sectioning, floating, and transferring sections to slides will free up time for histologists to focus on other work and improve the overall efficiency of your lab. With the Aquaro ASM, automated microtomy is now possible.
Your lab isn’t just under the gun to increase your output, but your quality as well. For example, the College of American Pathologists (CAP) is requiring labs to grade slides and record all the information about the processes and machines that are used in making the slides. A database correlates which machines make the best slides. Such quality control is gaining importance across the field.
Automation provides a level of standardization that manual production just can’t match. One study showed that when histologists were asked to manually obtain four-micron sections, the results varied wildly from three to eight microns. Since two microns can mean the difference between a positive and a negative biomarker stain, the implications are significant.
Automation can standardize the quality of histology across sections, histologists, and labs. Better standardization leads to more reliable staining for research and drug discovery—as well as more reliable diagnoses and better patient care.
Safer Work Environment
There’s a saying among histotechnologists: “It’s not a matter of if you will get carpal tunnel syndrome, it’s only a matter of when.” Manual microtomy is a major cause of repetitive motion injuries (RMIs). One study showed that the average histologist turns the fine advance wheel over 260,000 times per year using a manual microtome, if only producing one slide per block. Usually, more than one slide per block is necessary, so the number of manual wheel rotations is actually much higher.
Additional hazards of manual microtomy include:
- slippery paraffin fragments on the floor resulting in falls
- increased interaction with microtome blades
- higher likelihood of injury.
Hands-free microtomy can make histology laboratories a safer place to work, decrease medical time off, and reduce laboratory costs due to lost work time and injury compensation. A fully automated microtome, which doesn’t require a histotech to float and mount sections, would allow histotechs to walk away, removing the chance of microtomy-related injuries.
An automated histology lab can free up staff time, increase lab margins, and allow the lab to expand its offerings of special stains, biomarkers, and digital pathology. That means less stress and more interesting work for histologists.
Investing in automation is more cost-effective than investing in a larger workforce. Automated histology devices only require a one-time purchase and minimal maintenance. Labs can spend less time and budget on training, professional development, salary, and benefits. As histology budgets are reduced, cost-effective automation frees up finances so that labs can to continue investing in their current staff.
The Advantage of Automation
Automation often gets pegged as a job-killer, but in histology it can not only preserve jobs but also make them more rewarding for histologists. Is it time to explore new automation options for your lab? Download our whitepaper on automating microtomy to learn more about taking advantage of automation.