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Histopathology is the study of diseased body tissues taken from a biopsy or surgical sample. The person initially responsible for preparing tissue specimens is the histopathology technician. This person typically works in a laboratory cutting and preparing slides of diseased tissue for microscopic examination by a pathologist, who confirms the diagnosis of disease, dysfunction or malignancy. A prospective histopathology technician must complete a two-year accredited certificate program, along with clinical training. The job prospects for medical careers in histopathology are projected to be excellent.
The histopathology technician prepares samples by freezing and sectioning thin slices of biopsied or surgically removed tissue specimens from paraffin blocks, which are then mounted on microscopic slides. Histopathology technicians stain the slides with specialized dyes to make the morphological, or structural, details visible to the pathologist. In addition to tissue processing, paraffin microtomy, frozen cutting, and staining, the histopathology technician may also be responsible for complying with quality control procedures, managing and ordering laboratory supplies, and completing data entry into clinical computer applications. Technologists work in hospital laboratories, research institutions, industrial laboratories, public health departments, and government agencies.
Students interested in pursuing a science career as a histopathology technician should seek institutions that offer a certificated program in the field. The National Society for Histotechnology maintains an up-to-date list of accredited programs in the United States. Coursework includes instruction in the basic sciences, such as anatomy, physiology, microbiology and chemistry. This is followed by classroom instruction in histological theory and techniques. It is here that students learn how to gross, fix, process, embed, cut and stain tissues, as well as troubleshoot technical issues that may arise in the laboratory. Most accredited programs will take a 24-month period to complete, although shorter programs do exist, and some students may elect to further their training by completing a baccalaureate degree program. National certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) is encouraged for advancement, though not required for entry-level employment.
Because histopathology technicians carry a high degree of responsibility, employers look for candidates with a strong working knowledge of tissue specimen staining, especially as related to showing off morphological structures. Manual dexterity, painstaking attention to detail and skills in using precision equipment, such as the electron microscope, are also highly desirable traits. Candidates should demonstrate good oral and communication skills, computing skills, good color vision, and a willingness to work cohesively as a team player.
The job outlook for the histopathology technician continues to be strong, especially in hospitals, although employment opportunities are expected to increase in medical and diagnostic laboratories.