5 Things Your Pathologist Never Told You


Robert PalmerDoctor, doctor…

…give me the news.

Robert Palmer-1979

We have been called “The Doctor’s Doctor.” Pathologists stood in the background for decades, running laboratories, interpreting biopsies, staging tumors and making diagnoses. We rarely exposed ourselves directly to patients. There is even a law in New York State that explicitly prevents such contact. But now we live in a much more connected world. At the dawn of the digital age I created Pathwise, a company that “translated” biopsy reports from medical jargon to easy to understand English for patients with a desire to know. Now pathologists communicate via the Web, via Facebook, via Twitter. But even with all this improved interaction, there are still things you may not know about what really happens to your blood or your kidney or breast once it exits your doctor’s office, your hospital bed,  the O.R. And even less that you might know about the pathologist who coordinates all the activity.

  1. Most likely, the laboratory that analyzes your specimens has a pathologist as a Medical Director. To have an accredited laboratory, there is a long list of obligations and requirements that the Medical Director must ensure are occurring. This does NOT include running every blood test or making every slide personally. It DOES include verifying that qualified, well trained personnel are on hand to perform those tasks. And the scrutiny we are under to guarantee that keeps on growing.
  2. Pathologists deal with our own version of Moore’s Law. In computing, Moore’s Law predicts that over time, denser and more powerful integrated circuits will be developed. In pathology, we are faced with the proposition that tissue samples are getting smaller and smaller, but the amount of information we need to derive from them is getting greater and greater. In the last decade, tests looking at cancer cells for the various changes in their genes–how these cells differ from normal cells–are becoming essential in determining the precise type of tumor in a biopsy, as well as in deciding what chemo- or immunotherapy treatments will work best for a particular patient. And by the way, those tests are not cheap.
  3. The concept that there is a sharp line that separates “benign” from “malignant” can be a false one. Yes, in the vast majority of cases I can unequivocally call a biopsy benign or malignant. But that border line can be fuzzy; there can be a gray zone. Sometimes we just cannot accurately predict how a tumor will behave. And it is not just us local diagnosticians who are in this quandry. National experts don’t always agree on the nature of what they see under their microscope. And it can be a moving target. As new techniques are developed, and as our knowledge of the molecular underpinnings of illness grow, our interpretations and naming of disease processes change as well.
  4. You may be surprised to see a bill from a lab halfway across the country. Not all of your blood tests or tissue tests are performed locally. Some large national laboratories operate central hubs which may handle all specimens from a wide geographic area. Some more esoteric tests, particularly molecular and genetic studies on tumors, may only be performed at one laboratory in the country. Laws relating to patenting of genetic testing have changed, but laboratories can still create test combinations that are difficult to duplicate elsewhere.
  5. Pathologists are frequently leaders in a Medical Center. With offices and laboratories in the hospital, the pathologist often spends more time in the building than their clinical colleagues. This, combined with a general sense of trustworthiness, lead to many roles both within the administration of the hospital and the concerns of the physicians that make up the medical staff.

One more thing. Most pathologists love their job!

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Filed under: medicine, pathology

Tags: cancer, laboratory, pathology

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