HAMMOND — One of the nation's largest medical testing labs is going digital.

Alverno Laboratories, at its main campus here, is installing digital pathology equipment the company says will provide for faster diagnoses.

"It's a transformational change on how our pathologists do their entire jobs," Brian Wellborn, manager of anatomic pathology for Alverno, said as he showed off the new machines earlier this week. In the next room over, histotechnologists, outfitted in white lab coats, prepared microscope slides containing bodily tissue.

The company, which is owned by Franciscan Alliance and Presence Health, recently installed eight Philips digital pathology scanners with plans to add four more in January. The machines look like large desktop printers, but with slots for microscope slides. The technology will be used to diagnose various cancers and conditions in the appendix, gallbladder and kidney, among other body parts.

"We're going to be the largest site for digital pathology in the world, right here in Hammond," said Sam Terese, president and CEO of Alverno, which he noted will be the first commercial lab to go fully digital for pathology (some American universities currently use the technology).

Alverno, which has about 1,600 employees, provides diagnostic services for the Franciscan and Presence hospitals in Illinois and Indiana — Franciscan has campuses in Crown Point, Dyer, Hammond, Michigan City and Munster — as well as some private medical practices. The company annually does more than 23 million tests. Pathology makes up about a third of Alverno’s work, with the rest general medical testing, infectious disease diagnoses and, newly, precision medicine.

Previously, the company would, after readying slides for examination, have to drive them to pathologists around Indiana and Illinois. Now staffers can scan the slides into the company’s servers using the new machines and, in a matter of minutes, have them available to the doctors. Wellborn said this will cut four to 24 hours off the usual wait times.

“The immediate payback is time and collaboration,” Wellborn said. Physicians can now more easily work together on diagnoses, he noted, whether they’re in the “next office, next state or other side of the world.”

The technology will replace the microscope in most instances, the company said.

"This will allow for international collaboration,” Terese noted. “You can consult with an expert anywhere in the in the world with a click of the mouse." Multiple doctors, no matter where they are, now will be able to view and discuss the same image simultaneously.

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Alverno’s pathologists often get second opinions from experts from academic medical centers like the University of Chicago, Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic. Now, they can get the images instantly rather than having to wait days for the slides and can keep the pictures, whereas they used to send the slides back.

Alverno processes 4,000 to 5,000 slides a day, which, with the new technology, will consume five terabytes (one terabyte is equal to 1 trillion bytes) of data daily.

While not disclosing the exact dollar amount, Terese said the scanners were a "significant investment,” but will pay off by reducing the cost of transporting the slides and improving the quality of health care delivered by the providers Alverno works with. He said quicker, more accurate diagnoses could, for instance, cut down on length of stays in the hospital and inform proper pharmaceutical dosing.

And he said lessening patients' anxiety from having to wait for test results is “priceless.”

The increased efficiency will come in handy at a time when cancer rates are rising and the number of pathologists is expected to decline, Terese said.

The new approach will, he acknowledged, require an “enormous” amount of storage — 1 to 2 petabytes (one petabyte is equal to 1,000 terabytes) a year — though company officials expect storage capacity and costs to shrink over time.

"It's a new toy. We like new toys," said Dr. Elisabeth Shearon, a pathologist for Alverno. "Most of the hospitals had to wait to do their slides. Now they can pull them up instantly."

“The archive potential for this is incredible,” she added. “These images will be saved indefinitely,” whereas glass slides tend to break down. Wellborn said the specimens also will be much more “searchable” than before.

Shearon said if she has to do a staining to focus on a specific part of the image, she can now put it under the original image to help with diagnosing. The technology allows pathologists to review up to 10 slides at a time. The doctors will also now be able to mark and measure things digitally, potentially improving accuracy.

Terese said that in the future, the technology could be used in combination with artificial technology to spot cancer cells too small for humans to detect.


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.