A pathologist is a doctor who has specialized in pathology after receiving his or her medical degree. This specialization in the US usually means another three to four years of study and practice prior to becoming board certified. Pathology is, in essence, the study of blood, fluid, and tissue samples, which allow doctors to make diagnoses of various illnesses by looking for specific factors lacking or present in these samples. In medical care, this professional is a very valuable part of the medical team, since many diseases are diagnosed or ruled out by microscopic and lab analysis of fluid or tissue samples.
There are several subspecialties in pathology that a person in this field might choose to enter. Some master all or at least several subspecialties so that work and career path can be more diverse. A distinction also must be made between anatomical and clinical pathologists.
Most clinical pathologists oversee labs and the workers or automated equipment that perform tests on various bodily fluid or tissue samples. In contrast, the anatomical pathologist may practice in one or several of these subspecialties: surgical pathology, cytopathology, molecular pathology, or forensic pathology. Others may specialize in performing autopsies that can be a means of determining death. They may help other doctors make a diagnosis or give information as needed by criminal investigators to determine possible criminal involvement in a person’s death.
Surgical pathologists may remove and then evaluate a variety of different body samples in order to arrive at a diagnosis of illness. They may also perform physical exams of noted medical anomalies that are visible, and they can also do laboratory analysis of samples taken by other doctors. This type would be the likeliest specialist to evaluate a tumor, and determine its type, level of risk, and potential for metastasis.
Cytopathologists spend much of their time looking at whole cells, such as blood cells, or any other cells that are biopsied to look for illness. Molecular pathologists look even deeper to the various cell components, such as DNA that may create certain forms of disease. Those who work in forensics specifically examine the bodies of the deceased to determine cause of death and to collect any evidence that may be relevant in a criminal investigation.
People who work in this field can certainly perform many of the collections — like needle biopsies, skin scraping, and the like — of tissues or fluids, but many of them have very little direct contact with patients. This does not make them less important in the medical field, since a correct diagnosis dictates the right treatment. These specialists are valued as a very important part of the medical team, and many of them may be on hospital boards or run hospitals in addition to performing work within their area of specialty.
Though most pathologists have medical degrees, there are a few exceptions. People with a degree in dental medicine may examine collected body samples from the mouth to diagnose dental illness. Veterinarians can also specialize in pathology and diagnose the illness of animals.