Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Pathologist Definition:

Medical doctors who practice pathology; determine through laboratory medicine the causes of tissue disease.

Related Terms: Pathology

The task of defining a pathologist is much akin to asking for a definition of a surgeon, or a carpenter. With surgeons there are General Surgeons, Plastic Surgeons, Urologists, Orthopedic Surgeons, Vascular Surgeons, etc.. Likewise with carpenters, there are framers, finishing carpenters, cabinet makers, etc. In other words, the term "pathologist" is an overarching term that encompasses many disciplines.

Now down to the hard nut of the question. When thinking of "pathologists" start by thinking of doctors who practice laboratory medicine. Pathologists do the basic MD training and then, after a year or two of clinical medicine, head off to study the intricacies of how diseases affect tissues at a cellular, sub cellular, genetic and biochemical level. Again, think "microscope" and you are well on your way to understanding what many pathologists do all day long.

Pathology is divided into ClINICAL and ANATOMIC pathology.

In the CLINICAL division there will be specialists in: HEMATOPATHOLOGY (the study of the diseases of the blood, e.g.. leukemia, anemia, etc, including transfusion issues), MEDICAL MICROBIOLOGY (the study of disease caused by bacteria, viruses fungi, etc), MEDICAL BIOCHEMISTRY (the study of the body's chemical makeup and diseases affecting it, including toxicology), LABORATORY GENETICS (the study of genetics of disease).

ANATOMIC pathologists are the folk who may start with an autopsy (although autopsy these days is a rare phenomenon as it is an expensive process and yields little information other than when death is unsuspected and/or unusual) and move to examination of slides of tissue. HISTOLOGY is the study of tissues at a cellular level and the anatomic pathologists are experts at looking at tissues under the microscope and determining if disease is present. Within the specialty of ANATOMIC pathology many of the pathologists will have a subspecialty area of interest such as just the study of gastrointestinal disease, or brain pathology, etc.

So, say you are a surgeon in the OR and see a piece of tissue that looks suspicious or you are removing a cancer and you want to know if you've "got it all". The piece of tissue sent from the OR goes to the Anatomic Pathologist, who will take a thin slice, stain it and look at it under the microscope and fifteen minutes later he/she will report to the OR to give the surgeon guidance. Or, let's say that you are anemic and your blood test goes to the lab. The Hematopathologist will look at a smear of the blood under a microscope and will be able to tell if this is a nutritional anemia or a blood loss anemia or possible sickle cell disease, or any one of a number of other types of anemia. If you have a sore throat and your doctor takes a swab of your throat and sends it for "culture", the Medical Microbiologist (with the help of technicians) will grow the organisms picked up on the swab and within a day or two will be able to tell you which organisms are growing in the throat and whether they are "pathologic" -i.e.. causing disease, and if so, will have tested to see which antibiotic will be the most efficacious in treating the problem.

Pathologist sometimes think of themselves as knowing everything about everything, often too late to do anything about it!!

Duhaime.org acknowledges with thanks the contribution of Dr. David Naysmith of Victoria, British Columbia in the preparation of this definition.

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