What is a pathologist?

What is a pathologist?

Learn what pathologists do, their impact on healthcare, and their crucial contributions to diagnosis and treatment.

What Do Pathologists Do?

If you have recently seen your doctor about an illness and had blood taken, a pathologist was likely involved in your diagnosis and treatment. Even though you may never see them, a pathologist plays a vital role in a patient’s care team. They remain largely invisible to the patient as they carry out their work in a laboratory.  

Pathologists are medical doctors trained in laboratory techniques used to study and diagnose diseases, develop treatments or determine the cause of a patient’s death. Pathologists are also involved in research to devise new treatments and play a key role in developing vaccines and treatments for inherited conditions.

You are likely to use the services of different types of pathologists throughout your life. For instance, if you have trouble conceiving, a reproductive scientist is a type of pathologist who will investigate, diagnose and, if possible, treat your infertility issues. If your blood isn’t clotting properly, a hematologist will carry out blood tests to determine whether you have hemophilia and devise the right course of treatment. Pathologists use an array of different procedures, examinations, and tests  — such as pap smears, fine needle aspirations, biopsies, autopsies, blood investigations, and blood sugar tests — to help other healthcare providers reach diagnoses and determine the right course of treatment.

What is pathology?

Medical pathology is the study of the causes and effects of injury and disease. Pathology links medicine and science, supporting patient care with diagnostic testing and treatment to prevent disease. A pathologist is a doctor who studies organs, fluid, and tissues for bacteria, viruses, and other infectious agents to diagnose illnesses. Most cancer diagnoses are made in conjunction with a pathologist. They can also help to guide treatments. For instance, a pathologist can analyze blood samples to help monitor and track the progress of a bloodborne illness.

Many pathologists work in independent laboratories or hospital laboratories while others work in private practices or universities. In their day-to-day role, a pathologist will:

  • Manage medical laboratories
  • Take in samples for analysis
  • Work with laboratory equipment to analyze samples and refine results
  • Produce pathology reports to summarize analyses, results, and conclusions
  • Communicate findings to relevant physicians
  • Plan and supervise the work of pathology staff and residents
  • Identify the etiology, pathogenesis, morphological change, and clinical significance of diseases
  • Perform autopsies to identify cause or manner of death
  • Attend meetings with other health professionals to discuss treatment plans of individual patients

Types of pathologist

Pathologists have expert knowledge of the human body, illnesses, and diseases. Their skills and expertise are crucial in supporting every aspect of healthcare, whether guiding doctors on the right way to treat common diseases or using the latest cutting-edge genetic technologies to treat patients with life-threatening conditions. Pathologists also play a vital role in research, advancing medicine by devising new ways to fight and treat infections, viruses, and diseases such as cancer. Thanks to the role of a pathologist, we’ve been able to see significant reductions in life-threatening illnesses around the world in the last 100 years, along with major advances in blood transfusions, vaccinations, and treatments of inherited conditions.

But not all pathologists work in the same field. Pathology includes a myriad of subspecialties. There are so many, in fact, that it can seem like nearly every specialism in medicine has its pathology counterpart. Here are three very different types of pathologist:

Clinical pathologist

Clinical pathology is a specialty that requires a medical residency. It includes various subspecialties, including clinical chemistry, clinical hematology, hematopathology, and clinical microbiology. It also encompasses emerging subspecialties such as proteomics and molecular diagnostics. A clinical pathologist diagnoses diseases by analyzing bodily fluids such as urine, blood, and tissue using molecular pathology, hematology, microbiology, and chemistry.

Clinical pathologists are often medical doctors and work closely with clinical scientists, hospital administrators, medical technologists, and will refer physicians to ensure the optimal utilization and accuracy of laboratory testing. Their role includes identifying and interpreting a range of chemical reactions in culture samples and slides. A clinical pathologist will also interpret laboratory findings and diagnoses for patients

Forensic pathologist

The key role of a forensic pathologist is to investigate the cause of sudden and unexpected deaths. Forensic pathologists also provide evidence in court relating to the time and cause of such deaths. Not to be confused with a medical examiner, a forensic pathologist studies tissue, laboratory results, and performs autopsies to determine how a person died. Their investigation also includes visiting the death scene, gathering information regarding the person’s health, what they were doing at the time of their death and what happened at the time and place of the person’s death.

A forensic pathologist will examine the clothing as well as the body itself, including internal organs. They can also take samples from areas of the deceased person’s body which may contribute to the evidence that later leads to a conviction. Forensic pathologists work with police photographers, forensic dentists, toxicologists, pharmacologists, biochemists, hematologists, and microbiologists.

Speech pathologist

A speech pathologist, also called a speech therapist, evaluates, diagnoses, treats, and helps prevent communication and swallowing problems in children and adults. These speech disorders may have developed in childhood naturally or through illness or injury.

Depending on the specific language or speech disorder type, a speech pathologist will work towards improving communication through the use of speech therapies such as language intervention activities, articulation therapy, and other therapy types.

A speech pathologist will assess the problems by observing, talking to the individual, and conducting relevant tests. They will develop an appropriate treatment plan which may involve exercises, activities, and strategies designed to help.

How to become a pathologist

There are specific skills and knowledge you need to become a pathologist. You’ll need a good understanding of biology, medicine, and dentistry, which will underpin your work. A pathologist must also have excellent thinking and reasoning skills, including good analytical thinking skills. You’ll also need to have excellent verbal communication skills, complex problem solving skills, and the ability to pay attention to detail. It’s also imperative that you can work well under pressure and can accept criticism.

To become a pathologist, you must first complete a medical school program to become a medical doctor. All job roles in pathology require a very broad and detailed knowledge of medicine. You will also need to have spent at least three years in a residency program in Pathology. During residency, you’ll also take the final USMLE test.

The final step to successfully becoming a pathologist is to pass a board certification examination. Pathologists receive their board certification through the American Board of Pathology. If you wish to subspecialize in a specific field of pathology, you will need to undertake additional training and obtain the relevant certification at the time. Once qualified, the average pathologist salary ranges from $240,951 to $337,304. Salaries vary considerably depending on education, certifications, extra training, and amount of experience.

Pathology is a demanding but ultimately immensely satisfying and interesting career. It offers huge variety, bringing together laboratory and clinical work, and offers great opportunities within research. Pathologists play a key role in helping to care for patients by providing their physicians with the valuable information they need to ensure each patient receives the appropriate treatment and care.

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