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Pathologist

Overview

A pathologist is a physician who examines tissues, checks the accuracy of lab tests, and interprets the results in order to facilitate the patient’s diagnosis and treatment. He or she works closely with the patient’s other doctors and is a vital member of the patient’s primary health care team. Pathologists work in many areas of the medical laboratory and often serve as the Lab Director.  Contrary to popular depictions of this career, the task of performing autopsies constitutes just a small part of the typical pathologist’s practice.

A clinical pathologist oversees lab tests conducted on body fluids. For instance, together with clinical lab technologists, pathologists work to ensure that blood and blood products are safe. In microbiology, pathologists identify microorganisms that can cause infections – bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites – so that the most effective treatment can be selected for each particular case.

An anatomic pathologist assists surgeons during operations by providing immediate diagnoses on biopsies (specially treated tissues removed in surgery and rushed to the lab).

A forensic pathologist uses lab science to answer questions about evidence collected for criminal and civil cases.  Other pathologists conduct research in pathology, developing new tests and new instruments to better diagnose diseases.

Some pathologists devote their careers to research in pathology, developing new tests and new instruments to better diagnose diseases. Pathologists often teach their specialty to medical students and those preparing for other laboratory professions, including clinical lab technology and cytotechnology, among others.

Pathologists are problem-solvers, fascinated by the process of disease and eager to unlock medical mysteries, such as AIDS and diabetes, using the sophisticated tools and methods of modern laboratory science. With today’s rapid advances in biomedical science, over 2,000 laboratory tests on blood and body fluids are available – many of which require a pathologist’s expert interpretation.

You can download, save and print a PDF of this career profile:

Pathologist 14 May 2008 [pdf, 163 KB]

For more information, see the American Society for Clinical Pathology website.

Working Conditions

There are approximately 13,000 to 14,000 board certified pathologists in the United States who practice their specialty in community, university, and government hospitals and clinics, in independent laboratories, or in private offices, clinics, and other health care facilities.

Starting salaries for newly-certified pathologists can range from about $126,000 to $150,000 per year.

Academic Requirements

After completing the requisite 4 years of medical school, pathologists conduct another 4 to 5 years of residency training before they are eligible to take board certification examinations. Many pathologists also undertake additional training in a subspecialty of pathology.

For more information and related resources on pursuing a degree in pathology, see the American Society for Clinical Pathology website.