In virtually every medical case, when a doctor suggests a diagnosis, he or she turns to another medical professional, known as a pathologist, to confirm the condition. Pathology is the science of studying disease, and pathologists inform the workings of every element of the medical profession every day.

Understanding what pathologists do and the role they play in modern medicine can unlock some of the mysteries about why people get sick and why some don't recover.

What is a Pathologist?

A Pathologist is a medical doctor that connects the science of diagnosis with the selection of treatment options. Many of today's health diagnoses are combinations of many conditions, each of which causes specific reactions in the body, and each of which requires a uniquely specified medical intervention. To treat a patient’s multiple health problems, a pathologist looks at all of the present conditions and uses different therapies and medical practices to address issues separately. It is the pathologist's job to evaluate the particular "pathology" of the patient and their conditions, and relay that vital information to the patient's physician and team.

Reasons to See a Pathologist

Pathologists and patients do not routinely interact with each other. In fact, many patients are unaware of the role pathologists play in their care. Customarily, patients hear that tests or specimens may be "sent to the lab" for analysis. Rarely are they told that a pathologist studies their provided samples and consults with their physician. The attending doctor acts as a highly visible intermediary between pathologists and patients.

If you have received a diagnosis based on lab test results, you may wonder how the pathologist arrived at their conclusion and whether you should seek a second opinion. Since pathologists usually work behind the scenes, you may not realize that it’s possible to request to meet with this specialist doctor face-to-face. At this meeting, you will be able to request more detailed information about your diagnosis or discuss your medical reports in depth.

Patients whom directly interact with pathologists may face life-threatening or changing diagnoses. Naturally, these patients are more concerned about their diagnoses than those who face minor conditions. Speaking with a pathologist can provide you with greater detail regarding your disease and treatment, as well as provide information that is unavailable elsewhere. As medical researchers, pathologists are often up-to-date on the most recent technologies or treatments for serious diseases. They may know of experimental trials and other resources that could help you. Primary care providers may be less aware of these opportunities as they focus less on science and research.

Subspecialties of Pathology

Although there are 19 different specialties under the single "pathologist" title, there are four main types, while the others are in subgroups.

The Chemical Pathologist

These specialized doctors analyze the biochemical basis of disease and the related biochemical tests available for screening, diagnosis, treatment and management of illness. In the hospital setting, they play two significant roles:

  • As interpreter: The staff pathologist runs and evaluates the tests that confirm a diagnosis and informs the treating physician of the significance of the diagnosis to the patient. In this role, they interact with nursing staff, other consultants and the full medical team to ensure everyone comprehends the nature of this disease and its impact on this patient.
  • As monitor: In an outpatient setting, the pathologist tracks the diagnosis and treatment systems for patients managing chronic diseases such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and nutritional imbalances. The pathological tests keep track of patient progress so primary physicians can see how their patients are faring.

The Hematologist

A hematologist is an expert in the study of blood and the bone marrow that produces it. Hematologists discover and diagnose blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma as well as other blood disorders such as anemia and hemophilia.

Hematologists also manage blood transfusions and the blood collections and testing that go along with that function. The reduction in AIDS transmissions in the 1990's came about in part because hematologists tested all blood donations for HIV before sending them on for use in the hospital.

The Histopathologist

A histopathologist specializes in the studies of human tissue (histology) and cells (cytology) to discover abnormalities that may signal illness or disease. They are the professionals who examine biopsies — suspect samples of tissue — to determine what condition may be affecting them. The histologist can tell the difference between different types of cancer, determine the relative age of a disease based on how it has spread, and, as a post-mortem doctor, they can identify the cause of death based on their examination of the body. Histopathologists work in closely with the patient's medical team to clarify the disease in question and decide on the appropriate treatment course.

The Microbiologist

A microbiology pathologist studies infections. Bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites are types of infectious diseases that kill thousands of people every year. Microbiologists examine the cellular properties of infected tissues to determine the cause of the infection and its impact on the body. Additionally, they discover possible treatments and remedies for infection-borne illnesses. The global network of microbiologists was responsible in part for containing the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in East Africa in 2014.

Other pathology specialties include forensic pathology, immunology, and molecular pathology.

Pathologist Credentials

A pathologist is a licensed medical doctor. They've completed their formal education, which includes bachelor's and medical degrees, as well as a pathology residency program that taught them the skills they require to practice this type of medicine. Some doctors pursue fellowships within certain subspecialties, such as surgical or pediatric pathology, to gain skills within those disciplines.

Pathologists also obtain certification from the National Board of Pathologists by passing tests designed to measure their skills and knowledge about their particular pathology focus.

Patients and the Pathologists

Although you may have been previously unaware of the role played or even the existence of the pathologist on your health care team, there is no reason why you shouldn’t interact directly with a pathologist. Often, a diagnosis or particular treatment option can confuse a patient to the extent that they fail to follow through with the recommended treatment plan, which can jeopardize their health. If you form a relationship with the pathologist on your medical team, you can avoid that common healthcare pitfall.

Patients who do speak directly with their pathologist might consider the following questions:

  • Why did I receive this diagnosis over another?
  • Did genetics or lifestyle choices have an impact on the diagnosis?
  • What therapy options treat the symptoms or cure the condition?
  • Should I be aware of any new research or treatments for this condition?

The pathologist is the professional with the most knowledge not just about diseases in particular but also about how a disease affects each specific patient. Open communications with a pathologist can ease your concerns and help you to follow the recommended treatment and therapy plans.