If 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
"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