The Pathology Value Chain and Global Health, Part 3

In the first two installments of this blog series, we looked at inbound logistics and operations in which we can conclude that competitive advantage may be challenging to achieve. Now we turn to outbound logistics or, in simplest terms, the pathology report.

No document can be more terrifying for a patient than a pending pathology report from a biopsy, as it may contain a benign diagnosis, a malignant diagnosis, or something entirely unexpected. These reports are so important that unsuspected (non-malignant) and malignant diagnoses are included as “critical values” requiring a call and documentation to the clinical team as soon as they are discovered. Pathology reports in HIC are often not immediately available to the patient (unlike other laboratory tests) because the reports are often complex, may contain confusing terms, and may use language that patients inappropriately react to without the guidance of their clinician for meaning in their care. For example, cytology reports may be highly informative to a clinician by simply stating, “No evidence of malignancy” but may be stressful to a patient without guidance because there is not a definitive answer to what a lesion was. Similarly, a colon resection that states, “Invasive adenocarcinoma confined to the mucosa” is good news to the clinician but the first two words (and the internet) may be disturbing for the patient. The important point here is that pathology reports are written for clinicians and not written for patients as an audience. To that end, pathology reports should be highly aligned with the clinical decision-making process, an approach which is naturally aided by standardize or synoptic reporting of cancers using guidelines such as those of the College of American Pathologists, the Royal Colleges of the UK and Australia, and/or the International Collaboration on Cancer Reporting (a consortium of CAP, RCUK, RCA, ASCP, and others). These templates for a given cancer are complex, not easily committed to memory, nuanced, and require a high degree of pathology knowledge to apply correctly from the gross to the final histology findings. Thus, the value in these templates is in use by a pathologist directly, making task-shifting in this area nearly impossible without the aid of tools such as whole slide imaging and artificial intelligence (which still require a pathologist to finalize the report). Like operations, we see that a “standard of care” or a “standardized approach” to reporting cancer reduces the variability or uniqueness that can be achieved with a pathology report, infringing on competitive advantage.

Outbound Logistics – This activity covers the distribution of the final product to the consumer. For the maximum value to the patient, a report should be organized to match the treatment plan, available immediately upon completion, and provide an unambiguous answer than can be acted on. Although the first two activities generate the most important information for the patient and do so with “standards of care”, this activity involves communicating the results to the clinical team members who will act on it and, therefore, can open opportunities for competitive advantage. A new diagnosis of cancer is considered a “critical value” and requires a communication with documentation to the clinical team. However, much of pathology’s role in cancer care includes work with existing cancer patients so rapid communication of any result (not just the first cancer diagnosis) can add value. For example, integration of the pathology laboratory information system into the electronic medical record creates immediate results to clinicians. Alert systems including text messages, instant messages, emails, faxes, etc. add value by informing the busy clinician that the result is there. Photographs of the tumor grossly, histologically, or the results of specials studies can be included in printed or digital reports. Pathologists can attend tumor boards or other in-person or virtual meetings to present the results and explain them if there are questions. The more information that is transmitted with clarity to clinicians, the higher value the patient will obtain. The challenge in this activity is that the payment for the laboratory services ends with the diagnostic report and appropriate coding and, thus, laboratories may have to upcharge for their services to add these features. These further communications, which we can see adds value to the patient, does not add value to the laboratory’s revenue model without upcharges. In fact, it likely costs more to have such active communications as it takes pathologists away from the higher volumes which do equate to higher revenue (as we saw in operations). Streamlining these types of communications with electronic systems is key in cost and time savings and is the basis for the laws and regulations, for example, in the USA which require electronic medical records including laboratories. However, as laws, regulations, and guidelines evolved, these electronic communications are becoming standard of care requiring the entire system to increase the costs to have them but eroding the competitive advantage of providing such concierge services. Consider the change COVID-19 has had on communications between patients, clinicians, and the laboratory where a multi-person discussion of a case with images and consensus opinions can be done in a few minutes over a video conference without anyone leaving their office. Has this crisis provided a new way to capture time (and therefore revenue) but still provide concierge services? Or has it (more likely) created a new normal that everyone has to adopt (eroding competitive advantage)?

When we turn to LMICs and observe the activities of the pathology laboratory, communication with clinical teams on the front or back end has been uncommon and traditionally not done. Oncological practices in HIC are filtering down to LMICs including tumor boards, frozen sections (i.e., rapid, in surgery diagnostics), etc. and being instituted with some frequency. These activities improve patient value and outcomes, educate the teams in both directions, and are clearly beneficial to the system. But they take time and effort away from already understaffed systems which detracts from the value of other patients ultimately. However, when we observe these systems, we often find that they lack electronic tools for running the laboratory internally which inhibits tools for reporting externally. Thus, the major needed solution now is that any histology laboratory anywhere in the world should be using an anatomic pathology laboratory information system as it creates internal and external tools for standardized reporting, communication, and management. Furthermore, it creates better opportunities to integrate synoptic (templated) reporting, interdisciplinary team activities, and standardization of requisitions (i.e., upon receipt of samples). Greatly increased value for patients in LMICs can be achieved with electronic APLIS.

Lastly, there are incredible examples of pathologists who make time in their day to meet with patients to discuss their pathology reports. These discussions can only focus on what the reports says and what the words in the report mean, as defined not in context of that patient. Such exchanges can provide patients with helpful questions to ask their clinicians and prepare them to better understand what the clinicians suggests as next steps for treatment. Clearly valuable to the patient, these exchanges are also valued by the pathologists who enjoy the face-to-face interactions with patients that humanize the process. In rare cases (possibly a for-profit situation), these services may generate revenue but under current medical billing rules there is no standard mechanism for the pathologist to be reimbursed. If we have identified this as adding value to the patient in the pathology value chain, should we not try to find ways to build these services into the care model financially? With the ubiquitous use of video conferencing in the COVID-19 era, can this task be of minimal effort to pathologists but still add value for patients?

In our last installment, we will discuss marketing & sales and service, both of which are particularly flawed and fascinating to consider.


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-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

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