Pathology Assistant  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotIf you're interested in the field of pathology the first thing you need to do is forget what you've seen on TV. While popular shows like CSI have raised the awareness of pathology, they present a somewhat unrealistic view of the career.

"As far as entertainment, CSI and similar shows have opened the public's eye to pathology, specifically forensics," says Bryan Radosavcev. He's a pathologists' assistant (PA) in Thousand Oaks, California.

"However, they don't represent the realities of daily work," he says. "Only a small percentage of PAs work in that kind of environment. Most work in a community hospital or private practice."

Pathologists' assistants are specially trained individuals who function as 'physician extenders' for pathologists, says Lance Fuczek. He's the administrative director of a university pathologists' assistant program.

The main tasks performed by PAs include describing and dissecting surgical specimens, as well as assisting with autopsies. PAs may also submit samples, such as tissue for specialized study. They may also photograph specimens and produce radiographs (images produced by X-rays or other radiation).

"On the autopsy side, additional duties include chart review, case dictation and preparation of the provisional cause of death report," Fuczek says. "PAs have also taken on management responsibilities and play a central role in teaching medical residents and other trainees in gross pathology techniques."

Typically, pathologists' assistants work eight hours per day in a hospital setting. They may also be required to provide on-call support during off-hours.

Certainly, PAs can't be squeamish about anatomy, but other personal traits are just as important. Emotionally, pathologists' assistants must be able to cope with death because they deal with life and death situations all the time.

"It's equally important to have a humane, compassionate and respectful attitude towards patients and their families," says Susan Cromwell. She's a pathologists' assistant.

In their work, PAs use extremely sharp tools, such as scalpels and saws. They also handle human remains on a daily basis. Chemical smells, such as formaldehyde, are a constant presence.

"In surgical pathology, the hardest part is the physical labor involved, such as standing all day while working," says Radosavcev. "Also, the job demands consistency and alertness at all times."

PAs face time constraints and patient management decisions on a daily basis, which can be stressful, says Fuczek. "Independent, timely and accurate decision-making is very important in our profession," he says. "If we miss or under-sample a disease process, the pathologist may misinterpret the case. This can have very dangerous consequences for the patient."

Excellent communication skills can be added to the list of requirements for PAs. When samples are collected and examined, PAs must effectively describe and dictate the results for pathologists.

It's a long list of important traits. But if you have what it takes, working as a PA offers many rewards.

"Being a pathologists' assistant is a very rewarding profession," says Fuczek. "You are part of the medical team that tries to assess disease processes so that the patient receives the best care and treatment possible in a timely fashion. The patients we serve benefit from the quality of our dissections and descriptions."

At a Glance

Assist pathologists with autopsies, dissections and routine tasks

  • Use a wide variety of surgical, dissection and laboratory instruments
  • You may find yourself in the morgue or in a surgical suite
  • Start with a bachelor's degree in biological, medical or health science