Accuracy and perceptions of virtual microscopy compared with glass slide microscopy in cervical cytology

Cytopathology. 2011 Apr;22(2):82-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2303.2010.00758.x. Epub 2010 May 17.


Objective: To evaluate virtual microscopy in terms of diagnostic performance and acceptability among practising cytologists.

Methods: Twenty-four experienced cytologists were recruited to examine 20 SurePath® cervical cytology slides by virtual microscopy. Diagnostic accuracy was compared with glass slide microscopy using an unbiased crossover experimental design. Responses were allocated a score of one for a correct identification of normal or abnormal (borderline/atypical changes in squamous or glandular cells or worse) and a score of zero for an incorrect response (a normal slide reported as abnormal or vice versa). Perceptions of virtual microscopy were assessed by questionnaire analysis.

Results: Participants yielded a total of 285 responses for the virtual slide set and 300 for the glass slide set. The approximate time to screen a virtual slide was 18 minutes, compared with 8 minutes or less for a glass slide. Overall there was no significant difference between virtual microscopy and glass slide microscopy in terms of diagnostic accuracy (P = 0.22). Virtual microscopy under-performed when images were captured over a narrow focal range (P = 0.01). Diagnostic accuracy of virtual microscopy equalled that of glass slide microscopy when participants were able to focus through the full thickness of the slide images (P = 0.07). The most common difficulties experienced by participants with virtual microscopy were freezing of the computer screen during image download, slow response of the computer during slide movement and, in some instances, 'fuzzy' images. Cytologists have a strong preference for glass slides over virtual microscopy despite the overall equal diagnostic performance of the two viewing modalities.

Conclusions: Diagnostic accuracy of virtual microscopy can equal that of glass slide microscopy. However, without good computer network connections, wide focal range and software that permits effortless navigation across virtual slides, cytologists are unlikely to be convinced of the utility of this technology for cytology screening and diagnosis.

MeSH terms

  • Cervix Uteri / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Microscopy / methods*
  • Reference Standards
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Vaginal Smears / standards*
  • Visual Perception