A pathologist is a doctor who specialises in diagnosing diseases by examining tissue samples. The samples are often initially looked at whole and are then examined under a microscope.
Pathologists can be involved in the diagnosis of almost any organic disease. Particularly commonly they examine tissue samples to determine whether they are cancerous.
Specialty Areas of Interest
- Cytopathology – This branch of pathology studies and diagnoses diseases on the cellular level. Cytologists are sent cells from a patient gained by fine needle aspiration (FNA), scrapings (such as the Pap smear) or cells from fluid samples. They examine these under the microscope to reach conclusions about the disease process involved
- Histopathology – These pathologists examine a biopsy or surgical specimen to study the manifestations of disease in that sample. This is often to determine the diagnosis of cancer, however a a histopathological examination will determine the presence and nature of other diseases as well
- Forensic pathology – This branch of pathology is concerned with determining the cause of death, particularly where there are medico-legal implications. The deceased body is examined, an autopsy performed, some specimens examined microscopically to determine the disease processes that led to death
- Chemical pathology – The branch of pathology dealing with the biochemical basis of disease and the use of biochemical tests for diagnosis and management of various conditions
- Haematology, immunology, genetics and microbiology are often largely laboratory based and are considered branches of pathology, particularly the laboratory side of these fields
- Paediatric pathology – This involves pathological examination of tissue samples from children
There are numerous other subdivisions of pathology related to various areas of the body. This includes dermatopathology (pathology of the skin), gynaecological pathology, gastrointestinal pathology and so on.
What to expect
It is unlikely that you will meet your pathologist. Generally a tissue sample will be taken by another doctor – your surgeon, general practitioner or physician and then sent to the pathologist for examination. A report is then sent back to your doctor who will relay the findings to you and proceed as necessary according to the results.
Tissue samples may be entire organs, parts of organs, small parts of an organ of interest (a biopsy) needle samples (FNA), scrapings (Pap smear), fluid (eg sputum or fluid drained from your chest or abdomen). They will be carefully preserved, prepared and stained so they can be examined under a microscope and the maximal amount of information gathered from the examination.
Training and Qualifications
Specialist pathology training takes a minimum of five years. Training can be undertaken in General Pathology or in the areas of Anatomical Pathology, Chemical Pathology, Genetics, Haematology, Microbiology or Immunology.