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What is Pathology?

Pathology is a scientific discipline which involves the study and diagnosis of diseases, such as infections and cancers, at the genetic, molecular, cellular, and organ levels. It is also a medical specialty that focuses on making diagnoses, but contrary to popular belief, it is not all about blood tests!?

Pathology examines:

  • How and why diseases develop;
  • The disease process – what happens to our bodies when we are ill; and
  • The effects of diseases, including their symptoms and complications.

Research has always been a cornerstone of pathology, because an understanding of disease contributes to the development of diagnostic tests and better measures for prevention and treatment

It has been estimated that pathology plays a critical role in more than 70% of clinical diagnoses and many of the decisions around the optimal treatment for patients. For example, the diagnostic skills of pathologists allow patients to know if they are pregnant, anaemic, diabetic, at risk of heart disease, or if their lump is cancerous.?

What do pathologists do?

Pathologists are medical doctors with postgraduate training in one or more sub-specialties. Service pathologists perform diagnostic and clinical work, often in hospitals (anatomical pathologists, haematologists, clinical biochemists, medical microbiologists, immunologists and molecular cytogeneticists), while academic pathologists are primarily involved in research and teaching. Many medical pathologists have both service and academic roles.??

Medical scientists trained in pathology also have both service and academic roles, including in diagnostic laboratories and in medical research.?

Types of pathology

The main branches of pathology are clinical pathology, anatomical pathology or a combination of the two, referred to as general pathology.

General pathology

General pathology describes the scientific study of disease which can be described as any abnormality that is causing changes in the structure or function of body parts. In pathology, the causes, mechanisms and extent of disease may be examined.

The resulting changes in the structure or function of a body part and significance of the disease are also considered. A general pathologist would usually be familiar with all aspects of laboratory analysis and trained in clinical chemistry, microbiology and haematology, for example, but their knowledge would be less detailed than that of a subspecialist in one of these fields.

Anatomical pathology

Anatomical Pathology is the branch of pathology that deals with the tissue diagnosis of disease. For this, Anatomical Pathologists need a broad-based knowledge and understanding of the pathological and clinical aspects of many diseases as well as tissue diagnosis which is essential before starting treatment involving major surgery, radiation or drugs, treatments which may have major side effects.

The tissue on which the diagnosis is made may be biopsy material taken from a patient in the operating theatre, on the ward or from an autopsy (post-mortem). The latter is a small but important component of the work for establishing the cause in cases of sudden or unexpected death, for examining disease progression, including the response to treatment or lack of a response, and in criminal cases (forensic pathology) helping police in their investigations.

Further, Anatomical Pathologists examine not only samples of solid tissue, but also small specimens of separated cells. This is the subspecialty of Cytology. The specimens include fluids and tissue smears mainly for diagnosis and prevention of cancer.

Clinical pathology

This branch concerns the laboratory analysis of blood, urine and tissue samples to examine and diagnose disease. Typically, laboratories will process samples and provide results concerning blood counts, blood clotting ability or urine electrolytes, for example.

A Clinical Pathologist is familiar with the major aspects of the clinical branches of laboratory medicine. He or she is usually trained in chemical pathology, microbiology, haematology and blood banking, though not in as much detail as subspecialists in each field