What Does a Pathologist Do?

Understanding the Work Pathologists Perform

Pathologist Examining Fluid Samples.

The Medical Specialty of Pathology

The word pathology is a general term for the area of medicine concerned with performing an examination of body tissues to determine a diagnosis of illness or disease.  The area of pathology that most patients are familiar with is cytopathology, the area of medicine that is responsible for examining tissue samples and diagnosing disease and illness.

The pathologist is an essential part of the healthcare team as they are able to help diagnose a problem so that the patient can receive appropriate treatment.



Cytopathology is the area of pathology that analyzes fluid and tissue samples from the human body to diagnose diseases.  This branch of medicine utilizes a microscope to visualize small tissue and fluid samples, examining them closely for any signs of disease.  

When a biopsy is taken from a patient, the sample is then analyzed by a pathologist.  For example, a patient may have a mole that looks suspicious.  The healthcare provider, typically a dermatologist or another healthcare provider, takes a sample of the mole. The sample is then sent to pathology, where the specimen is examined under a microscope.  The pathologist can then determine if the sample is normal tissue, abnormal tissue, or cancerous. 

Surgical Pathology

This pathology specialty focuses on diagnosing disease and health problems using samples taken during surgery.  These samples may be small pieces of tissue, or entire organs, depending on the nature of the problem.

 For example, a woman is having a hysterectomy due to unusual bleeding.  During the surgery, the uterus is removed but the surgeon is concerned that cancer may be present in the tissues of the uterus.  The entire uterus is sent to pathology, where the pathologist examines multiple samples of the organ under the microscope, working to find any signs of disease.

Small samples may also be taken during a procedure.  For example, a needle biopsy may be taken of an organ, such as the liver or kidneys.  This tiny sliver of tissue can be examined to determine the health of the organ without causing harm to the organ itself.

Fluid samples may also be sent to pathology, in addition to other types of testing that may be performed, including a gram stain and culture.  If the surgeon suspects that an infection is present, any fluid around the area can be examined for infection in the lab. 

Forensic Pathology

Forensic pathology is different from clinical pathology, which works to diagnose patients with illness. Forensic pathology works to determine the cause and manner of death of an individual.  These physicians perform autopsies and work with the authorities to determine if a death was natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or undetermined.  

Like other pathologists, the forensic pathologist uses a microscope to determine if disease is present in a tissue sample, along with other signs that may indicate a cause of death.

 For example, the forensic pathologist may believe that the patient died from cirrhosis of the liver.  In that case, many samples of the liver would be taken and examined to determine if liver failure was a potential cause of death.  

A surgery patient who died during surgery would be a coroner's case, meaning that their death would be investigated by the forensic pathologists at the local coroner's office to determine if the death was caused by a surgical mistake or another issue.

Medical Training of Pathologists

Pathologists are physicians who complete four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school and a residency in pathology.  Most pathologists are board certified in the specialty of pathology after they complete their training.  This means that they have passed a demanding test that determines that the necessary knowledge has been obtained to practice pathology.


Pathology.  American Board of Medical Specialties. Accessed November, 2015. http://www.certificationmatters.org/abms-member-boards/pathology.aspx

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