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What Does a Pathologist's Assistant Do?

A pathologist's assistant may help conduct autopsies.
The exterior of a body is meticulously examined in an autopsy.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 July 2014
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A pathologist's assistant provides a number of services in a pathology lab, ranging from managing paperwork to conducting autopsies. These allied health professionals can do many of the same things that a fully licensed pathologist can do, with the exception of diagnosing patients, and they work under the supervision of a pathologist. Employment prospects in this field can be quite good, as many facilities are constantly in need of additional pathology staff.

In order to become a pathologist's assistance, someone must usually obtain a master's degree in science. He or she typically has a bachelor's degree in the life sciences, medical technology, or a related field, attending a specialized two year program which is designed to create qualified pathologist's assistants. Depending on the region where he or she works, a pathologist's assistant may be required to take a licensing exam to demonstrate competency.

In the lab, a pathologist's assistant can process specimens, handling everything from filing the paperwork to running all of the necessary tests which could lead to a diagnosis. A pathologist's assistant can perform dissections, interpret test results, and describe anatomical specimens, with the pathologist stepping in at the end of the process to confirm the diagnosis. These professionals also manage specimens stored in the lab, and they often deal with administrative issues like maintaining paperwork, issuing pathology reports, and coordinating employee schedules, freeing up the pathologist for other work.

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Pathologist's assistants can also perform autopsies, handling every stage of the process from securing legal permission to conduct an autopsy to releasing a body to family members or a funeral home. The gross dissection skills of these professionals come in useful at the autopsy table, as they must be able to examine the organs in situ as well as dissecting them and taking samples. In a busy pathology facility, autopsy skills can also reduce the pathologist's caseload, which can help reduce burnout and ensure that the pathologist is able to focus on his or her responsibilities.

In some pathology labs, the pathologist's assistant also provides training to new employees, familiarizing them with lab procedures and helping them get established. Teaching duties may also fall upon this member of the pathology staff, and he or she may guide students, conduct demonstrations, offer lectures, and provide other learning opportunities for people pursuing careers in pathology. Experienced assistants can also provide training and support to newly qualified pathologists who may not have the extensive field experience of a veteran pathologist's assistant.

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Discuss this Article

LTimmins
Post 5

I find that for many of these types of jobs that typically have lower numbers of candidates, the salaries naturally tend to be higher. It would probably require a strange combination of having a thick enough skin to deal with death and tragedy but also be human enough to sympathize with the family. It was kind of interesting that the article actually mentioned pathologist burnout. I wonder if this is a frequent occurrence in this profession.

yseult
Post 4

@cafe41 - Although pathology assistants are allowed to hand over the body to the family members, it would normally be the pathologist who would speak to them beforehand and go over the findings or report with them. If you think about it, the family is basically the "client", so the pathologist would be in charge of informing and comforting them. It's quite a noble profession - long hours and difficult subject matter, but they're filling a void that few people care to venture into.

cafe41
Post 3

@Subway11- I wonder if the pathologist’s assistant ever talks with the victim’s family or they strictly behind the scenes. I think that discussing the findings with the family must be really hard to do.

subway11
Post 2

@Icecream17 - I have a lot of respect for people in this line of work because it is not always easy to work with remnants of a dead body. I know I personally would feel uncomfortable and probably would not sleep at night.

I do know that there is a lot of value in determining the cause of death because it also gives the family some comfort especially if the person died in their sleep. Sometimes when people die suddenly there are very few answers and usually it the pathologist along with the pathologist’s assistant that offers valuable information to the family members.

Often it is a result of an undiagnosed problem like a heart condition or some sort of blood clot, but it still very tragic especially when the person is young.

icecream17
Post 1

I imagine that working as a pathologist's assistant must be really interesting because you get to help research the cause of death and really help the victim’s family cope with the death of their loved one.

Assisting in determining the cause of death is very powerful and offers closure for the family. I know that there are a lot more of these opportunities in larger cities that have higher crime rates. The salaries are also higher in those cities as well.

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