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How can we raise the profile and improve the perception of pathology?

Did you know there are at least 17 different kinds of pathologist? Like my partners on this project, I work as an anatomic pathologist. I specialize in dermatopathology and sarcoma pathology, but much of what I’m going to talk about is relevant to the other kinds of pathologists as well.

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Dr. Gardner

Dr. Gardner

I want to dismantle the myth that we spend our days peering down the microscope and looking at slides in order to avoid interaction with patients, that we only do autopsies, or that we aren’t ‘real’ doctors because we often don’t see our patients face to face. I’d like to share with everyone what a pathologist actually does because our role is central to patient care. And I’d like to share it now because pathology is at a crucial point, with opportunities that we need to build on and challenges we need to overcome so that we can continue to do our best for our patients.

I was happy to join the Future of Pathology project because it gives me an opportunity to do just that. When I Skyped in to the initial meeting with my project partners, we all agreed that a fundamental step in shaping the future of our specialty is to communicate who we are and what we do. This will be my role in the project. In fact, my enthusiasm for it is limitless: I’ve published papers on the topic, I teach pathology to medical students and residents, and I reach out to pathologists, to other medical colleagues, and even to the public through social media. I’ll be writing more about what I’ve learned during my interactions over the course of the project.

So, let’s briefly set the scene. Anatomic pathologists are the kind of pathologists that analyze tissues and cells to find a diagnosis (we’re called histopathologists in some places). Much of our work is focussed on cancer. Our analysis of a biopsy or other sample taken from a tumor is one of the first and most crucial steps at the beginning of the patient journey; the right diagnosis is crucial to choosing the right treatment. As more is discovered about the nature of cancer as a disease, our role has expanded to include cancer screening as well as offering treatment guidance and monitoring treatment response. In other words, pathologists understand a lot about the disease and are central to its treatment. Technology that can support us in our day-to-day tasks is continuously evolving and, as a discipline, we face some challenges in terms of recruiting the numbers we need to secure pathology services in the future.

I went into pathology because I was excited by digging deep to find information and by the difference that information can make to patients. I still feel that way. But why should anyone else care about that? My own experience tells me that when pathologists speak with patients, we empower them with information about their condition. When we speak with our colleagues, we work together collaboratively to piece together a picture of how to provide the best personalized care for our patients. When we speak with young people in education, we encourage them to consider choosing pathology as a career. And when I spoke to hospital administrators recently as part of this project, we were able to share a vision for the future in which the pathology team could support their deep commitment to delivering patient-centered care. I feel confident that pathology can evolve, survive, and even thrive in the future but only if others know what we have to offer.

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