A randomized study comparing digital imaging to traditional glass slide microscopy for breast biopsy and cancer diagnosis

Joann G. Elmore, Gary M. Longton, Margaret S. Pepe, Patricia A. Carney, Heidi D. Nelson, Kimberly H. Allison, Berta M. Geller, Tracy Onega, Anna N.A. Tosteson, Ezgi Mercan, Linda G. Shapiro, Tad T. Brunyé, Thomas R. Morgan, Donald L. Weaver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Background: Digital whole slide imaging may be useful for obtaining second opinions and is used in many countries. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires verification studies. Methods: Pathologists were randomized to interpret one of four sets of breast biopsy cases during two phases, separated by ≥9 months, using glass slides or digital format (sixty cases per set, one slide per case, n = 240 cases). Accuracy was assessed by comparing interpretations to a consensus reference standard. Intraobserver reproducibility was assessed by comparing the agreement of interpretations on the same cases between two phases. Estimated probabilities of confirmation by a reference panel (i.e., predictive values) were obtained by incorporating data on the population prevalence of diagnoses. Results: Sixty-five percent of responding pathologists were eligible, and 252 consented to randomization; 208 completed Phase I (115 glass, 93 digital); and 172 completed Phase II (86 glass, 86 digital). Accuracy was slightly higher using glass compared to digital format and varied by category: invasive carcinoma, 96% versus 93% (P = 0.04); ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), 84% versus 79% (P < 0.01); atypia, 48% versus 43% (P = 0.08); and benign without atypia, 87% versus 82% (P < 0.01). There was a small decrease in intraobserver agreement when the format changed compared to when glass slides were used in both phases (P = 0.08). Predictive values for confirmation by a reference panel using glass versus digital were: invasive carcinoma, 98% and 97% (not significant [NS]); DCIS, 70% and 57% (P = 0.007); atypia, 38% and 28% (P = 0.002); and benign without atypia, 97% and 96% (NS). Conclusions: In this large randomized study, digital format interpretations were similar to glass slide interpretations of benign and invasive cancer cases. However, cases in the middle of the spectrum, where more inherent variability exists, may be more problematic in digital format. Future studies evaluating the effect these findings exert on clinical practice and patient outcomes are required.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3
JournalJournal of Pathology Informatics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2017


  • Breast cancer
  • diagnostic accuracy
  • digital whole-slide imaging
  • intraobserver reproducibility

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Health Informatics
  • Computer Science Applications


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