Leica Biosystems provides products for anatomical pathology labs, including BOND staining equipment (systems that apply certain chemicals to tissue samples so that particular structures such as cancer cells are highlighted when viewed under a microscope).
Like most sensible companies, Leica Biosystems talks to its customers about the product improvements they would like to see, and remote alerts was one requested feature. Some pathology requests are urgent - even a few minutes delay can have an impact when the patient is on an operating table - so it is important that the operator's attention is drawn immediately to situations such as a required chemical not being loaded in the stainer. While the equipment displays such error conditions, it is possible that no one is present to see it or all the staff are busy with other tasks.
So in January 2013, work began on the development of an instrument dashboard that could run on an iPhone, software engineering manager James Maddern told iTWire. The APiQ (Anatomic Pathology with Extra Intelligence) Instrument Dashboard (pictured below) would display the status of all the instruments in a lab, warn of any issues, and predict when a particular slide would be ready or when a certain instrument would complete its tasks.
"It really helps them organise their day," said Maddern, "and it helps prevent potential issues becoming real issues."
Furthermore, it encourages labs to do more overnight processing as the instrument status can be remotely monitored.
APiQ Instrument Dashboard only delivers information from Leica Instruments. If it provided any remote control capabilities, both the app and the phones it runs on would fall into the highest certification regime for medical devices.
A second app, APiQ Inventory Manager (pictured, top), runs on an iPad and provides inventory management of the hundreds of reagents, slides, cassettes, bulk fluids and other items used by Leica Biosystems' equipment. "It's as if your fridge was able to order what you need," global marketing manager Ewa Douroux told iTWire.
During the design phase the team kept talking to customers about their requirements, and so "it's really tailored to the labs," she said.
The app reveals low stock levels, out-of-date supplies, and items that will soon expire, among other information.
Leica Biosystems' instruments uniquely measure the actual amount of the chemicals they are loaded with, Douroux noted. Other products merely subtract the quantity they use from the nominal amount in the container, but that does not account for accidental spills and so on.
The app can be customised to reflect the reagents that are critical for the particular lab (ie, that should never be allowed to run out), the staff member to be notified when reordering is necessary, and items that are not used by the lab can be removed from the watch list.
A customer survey revealed that labs typically spend between two and six hours a week managing their inventory, but the app practically eliminates that and makes the current information available at any time, Douroux said.
The original idea for both apps came from Leica Biosystems' Melbourne operation, and the bulk of the development took place there.
Maddern said the apps were developed in-house as Leica Biosystems had the software development capability and because producing software for such a complex and heavily-regulated domain required the expertise that the company's developers, scientists and engineers could provide.
Furthermore, "we've got a pretty good handle on what customers want," he added.
The bulk of the processing is performed by back-end systems developed by Leica Biosystems and running on Microsoft's Azure cloud platform, with each pathology lab having its own instance. The use of Azure means many customers - including those in Australia - can choose to keep their data onshore, while still benefiting from geographical redundancy. And Leica Biosystems has "zero access to their data," stressed solution architect Iain Chesworth.
Leica Biosystems is primarily a Microsoft house, and therefore it had the skills to quickly develop that part of the project, said Chesworth.
At its peak, 37 people were part of the project's development team.
The system was built for data security and integrity, Chesworth told iTWire. "We're committed to making sure our product is reliable." The team drew on expertise from other parts of the company, and the system was subjected to external checking.
Although the hybrid apps were written for iOS first (to meet the requirements of most customers), the use of AppGyver's cross-platform framework means a wide variety of other devices can be targeted if there is sufficient demand from customers, he said. Maddern added that once you've built an app for one type of device with AppGyver, about 90% of the work is already done for the next device.
The apps are available to Leica Biosystems' customers in Australia, New Zealand and the US, with a European release planned for this year. The company's instruments work in 16 languages, so the apps are also being localised. Since regulations vary between countries, they have been designed to meet whichever nation's requirements are the most stringent.
APiQ Inventory Manager and APiQ Instrument Dashboard are available from the App Store, but they are only useful when licensed as part of a package of equipment and services from Leica Biosystems.
"It is wonderful to see that our software solutions are working for many laboratories including some very busy ones," said Leica Biosystems's Germany-based president Matthias Weber.
"We are committed to innovation and our vision is to develop a full range of APiQ solutions to help the entire anatomic pathology lab work smarter, faster and more efficiently.
"APiQ helps laboratories save time and better manage their instruments and inventory. There’s now no reason why a lab should run out of a particular reagent or consumable.
"We are committed to innovation and these initial APiQ solutions are just the start. Our vision is to develop a full range of APiQ solutions to help the entire anatomic pathology lab work smarter, faster and more efficiently."