Pathologist

Overview

What is a pathologist?

A pathologist is a medical doctor with specialized training to study medical conditions using human tissue, blood, pee and other body fluids. They provide essential insight and information to help diagnose and treat conditions, monitor them and provide prognoses. Through research, they can better diagnose diseases of all types.

Pathologists gather information by looking at tissue samples, cells and body fluids under a microscope. They also perform tests on the samples with machines, such as analyzers for blood tests.

What is pathology?

Pathology is the study of the cause of diseases and how diseases affect your body’s tissues on a cellular level.

What are the different kinds of pathologists?

Pathologists can sub-specialize in several different areas. For example, they can be a:

  • Blood banking/transfusion medicine pathologist: This expert is responsible for maintaining the blood supply in a medical facility. They make sure blood transfusions are safe and direct the preparation and use of blood components, such as plasma or red blood cells.
  • Chemical pathologist: This expert studies the biochemistry of the human body as it applies to understanding the cause and progress of diseases.
  • Cytopathologist: This expert specializes in diagnosing disease by studying cells. One common example of this is examining the cells of a Pap smear. Cytopathology is typically involved with diagnosing cancer.
  • Dermatopathologist: This expert specializes in diagnosing and monitoring skin diseases.
  • Forensic pathologist: This expert investigates and evaluates cases of sudden, suspicious and violent death as well as other specific classes of death according to the law.
  • Hematopathologist: This expert specializes in diseases that affect blood cells, blood clotting processes, bone marrow and lymph nodes.
  • Medical microbiologist: This expert identifies microbial organisms that cause infectious diseases.
  • Molecular genetic pathologist: This expert provides information about gene structure, function and alteration (mutations). They use laboratory techniques that help diagnose, treat and provide a prognosis for people with certain genetic disorders.
  • Neuropathologist: This expert specializes in diagnosing diseases that affect your nervous system and skeletal muscles.
  • Pediatric pathologist: This expert makes laboratory diagnoses of conditions that occur during fetal growth, infancy and child development.
  • Surgical pathologist: This expert studies tissues that surgeons remove during surgery to help diagnose a disease and determine a treatment plan. For example, a surgical pathologist may look at the tissue from a cancerous tumor under a microscope while the surgery is still happening to see if the surgeon needs to remove more surrounding tissue, like lymph nodes.

What does a pathologist do?

The main role of a pathologist is to use laboratory tests and techniques to determine the presence and type of disease in tissue and fluid samples from your body. They can do this in several different ways and in virtually all areas of medicine, such as oncology, immunology and genetics — to name a few.

Pathologists are key parts of healthcare teams. They work closely with other healthcare providers, such as radiologists, oncologists, hematologists, surgeons and others. They help:

  • Make a diagnosis: Pathologists are often involved in diagnosing a condition. A pathologist may examine a sample of body tissue or fluid for a virus or bacteria, for example. They’re involved in the vast majority of cancer diagnoses.
  • Recommend treatment options: A pathologist may recommend a specific type of antibiotic to treat a bacterial infection or provide insight on whether to use radiation, chemotherapy or surgery to treat a tumor.
  • Monitor ongoing medical conditions: A pathologist may analyze blood samples to monitor and track the progression of blood-borne pathogens, like hepatitis B.
  • Provide a prognosis: For certain conditions, such as leukemia, specific gene mutations can drastically change the prognosis (outlook) of the condition. Pathologists can perform genetic tests on tissue samples to uncover these gene changes.

Compared to other providers, pathologists don’t usually directly interact with patients. While they play a significant role in making a diagnosis, they’re not the ones who tell you about your diagnosis. The medical specialist who ordered the test, such as your gastroenterologist or gynecologist, tells you about the diagnosis based on the pathologist’s findings in their report.

However, a few subspecialties see patients daily, such as pathologists who work in blood banking and transfusion medicine.

Pathologists also have an essential role in medical research. They work to develop new treatments to fight or prevent viruses, infections and diseases. This can include medical advancements, such as new vaccines and targeted therapies.

Is a pathologist a doctor?

Yes, a pathologist is a medical doctor. They attend medical school and earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.

Where do pathologists work?

Pathologists can work in several different environments, including:

  • Community hospitals and clinics.
  • University hospitals and clinics.
  • Government hospitals and clinics.
  • Independent laboratories.
  • Private offices.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you become a pathologist?

To become a board-certified pathologist, you must:

  • Complete pre-medical education at a college or university, earning a bachelor’s degree.
  • Complete medical school, earning a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.
  • Have at least three years of advanced medical education in a residency training program.
  • Pass board certification exams through the American Board of Pathology.

Most pathologists receive training in both clinical and anatomical pathology. Most pathologists also specialize in a certain area of pathology, such as hematopathology or chemical pathology.

How many years does it take to become a pathologist?

It usually takes at least 11 years to become a pathologist. This includes pre-medical education, medical school and at least three years of residency.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Pathologists are essential medical professionals who work behind the scenes to diagnose medical conditions. While you may never meet your pathologist, know that they have specialized knowledge and skills to diagnose conditions accurately and recommend treatment plans. Your pathologist and medical team will work together to provide the best care for you.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/17/2023.

References

  • American Board of Medical Specialties. American Board of Pathology. (https://www.abms.org/board/american-board-of-pathology/) Accessed 1/17/2023.
  • College of American Pathologists. What is Pathology? (https://www.cap.org/member-resources/articles/what-is-pathology) Accessed 1/17/2023.

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