Microscopes are among the most important optical instruments in the clinical laboratory, so it is not surprising that laboratory staff, under increasing pressure to deliver more efficient and better-documented results, are demanding more than ever from them.
An Important Investment
A good microscope is often considered a laboratory workhorse; it is robust, reliable and delivers outstanding optical quality. But to generate accurate, high-quality data, microscopes require extensive training and demand a great deal of their users, both physically and mentally. So, once all of the financial and human resource implications over time are considered, a laboratory's investment in its microscopes may be substantial.
The latest microscopes incorporate workflow enhancements to speed the review process and ensure consistent results, along with motorization to streamline and enhance repeatability, better light management for comfort and efficiency gains, flexible comfort and enhanced adaptability so users can step up new technologies as procedures and protocols progress. Having the right microscopes can make a substantial difference in how smoothly and efficiently a lab functions. The right instruments also help make it possible to train tomorrow's professionals with greater consistency and effectiveness.
Changes in Technology
The first order of business has been to improve microscope usage efficiency; changes in technology are helping lead the way. Some new microscopes use advanced motorization technologies that make it possible to set viewing and imaging parameters more quickly and comfortably, while ensuring that the same settings are used again each time a test is performed or exam is done. Such systems also can ensure documentation of the exact conditions under which imaging or examination of a slide occurred, streamlining workflow.
Figure: Some microscopes are designed with stages that are barely five inches above the work surface, so it is easy, fast and comfortable to switch slides.
For instance, users now can change objectives or adjust focus with the touch of a button, eliminating repetitive wrist motion and enhancing speed and efficiency. A joystick or touch pad can be used instead of having to adjust the stage position manually. This can make it easier and more systematic to move across a slide, while also greatly reducing unnecessary hand and arm movements.
Some microscopes come with a camera trigger button that allows users to release the shutter without taking their eyes away from the eyepieces. Some of these instruments have the trigger integrated into the frame; others allow users to place the trigger anywhere it is most convenient, such as adjacent to the focus knob so they can click and capture an image with the touch of one finger without taking their hand off the knob.
New microscope frames have smart components that improve integration and communication among the frame, eyepieces and camera. For example, when the user changes objectives to a different magnification for observation, these microscopes automatically adjust the light intensity to compensate.
In addition, some of these microscopes can change the scale bar that appears in images automatically to match the objective being used. Integrating the camera, nosepiece, microscope stand and other system components helps make recordkeeping, reporting, documentation and archiving more efficient, and having a permanent record of all settings makes the new instruments ideal for education and training.
A microscope is an advanced instrument, but one of the most effective methods to promote its more efficient use is also one of the simplest - enhancing user comfort. The more laboratory professionals feel like their individual system and workstation is tailored for them, the less likely they are to feel any de-energizing effects of spending protracted periods at their instrument. Most microscope eyepieces already accommodate users' different prescriptions and inter-pupillary distances. But today's microscopes go much further in giving users a custom-designed feel.
One ergonomic advancement to consider is an ultra-low stage. Some microscope stages are barely five inches off the work surface-about three inches lower than usual (Figure). This means that only minimal forearm movement is necessary to change or mark specimens, and that switching slides is fast and convenient.
In addition, many newer microscopes have their controls up front for easier user access. Some of the same motorized functions that speed the review process and enhance its repeatability also help eliminate repetitive motion. Motorized nosepieces and shutter releases, for instance, enable users to change objectives or capture images with just the touch of an easy-access button. Joystick or touch-pad stage control enhances comfort for some users.
In addition to the automated light intensity control that adjusts for changes in magnification, many microscopes now use energy-efficient, long-lasting LED illuminators. Unlike the LED lighting of the past, systems now may have color reproduction that rivals that of traditional halogen lamps; stain colors now appear the way professionals are used to seeing them. Transmission ratios for microscope objectives also are better than ever.
With technology undergoing such rapid transformation, every capital investment needs to be made with the future in mind. Making sure an instrument is upgradeable is just as important as having the best in ergonomics, workflow enhancements and motorization. Consider asking manufacturers about forward-looking adaptability to meet changing demands in the lab over years to come as part of their purchasing process.
Mark Clymer and James Sanzo are with the Scientific Equipment Group, Olympus America Inc.