What Does a Pathology Assistant do?

A pathology assistant is a highly trained allied health professional who is responsible for providing anatomic pathology services under the supervision and direction of a board-certified, licensed pathologist.

Pathology assistants are qualified to perform all of the autopsy and surgical functions of a pathologist leading up to, but not including, the diagnosis. Pathology assistants are typically the first to examine tissue samples and figure out what the supervising pathologist should look for in making a diagnosis. They photograph specimens, prepare tissues for tests, and process specimens. In addition, duties of pathology assistants who work in autopsy pathology will be slightly different. These responsibilities may include assisting in the postmortem exam, coordinating specimens for organ transplantation or research, reviewing the medical history of the deceased, and gaining legal approval for an autopsy to be performed.

Services Pathology Assistants May Provide

Pathology assistants may provide a number of services, including the preparation, dissection, and gross description of human tissue surgical specimens. They may also prepare human postmortem examinations and procure samples for biospecimen banking. In addition, pathology assistants will use their anatomy and physiology, gross dissection, photography and gross pathology skills for surgical specimens, and they may implement autopsy techniques as they deem necessary. Some pathology assistants may train other pathology lab personnel, pathologists’ assistant students, and pathology fellows/residents. By performing such a wide variety of tasks, pathology assistants make a significant contribution to a pathology practice’s or laboratory’s cost efficiency and effectiveness.

In addition, all pathology assistants perform administrative duties to some extent in order to keep the lab running smoothly. These duties may include preparing reports, assisting in organizing pathology conferences, billing, record keeping, and maintaining supplies and equipment.

Working Conditions for Pathology Assistants

Pathology assistants may work in a wide scope of clinical practices. Although most pathology assistants work in community and academic (medical school/university) hospitals, they may also seek employment in other areas such as medical teaching facilities, government healthcare systems, reference laboratories, forensic pathology laboratories and morgues, and private pathology laboratories. Some pathology assistants are even self-employed business owners who offer their pathology expertise via short- and long-term contracts.

Academic Requirements for Aspiring Pathology Assistants

There are currently 10 pathologists’ assistant programs that are accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS). All but one of these programs requires a bachelor’s degree in a science or science-related field; the rest require a master’s degree. Aspiring pathology assistants can expect to take prerequisite undergraduate courses in English composition, mathematics and statistics, organic/biochemistry, general chemistry, microbiology, and biological sciences, preferably physiology and human anatomy. Pathology assistants may seek voluntary certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology’s (ASCP) Board of Certification. Although not required, certification demonstrates that a pathology assistant’s knowledge is up-to-date and that his or her skills meet the field’s standards.

Many health professionals choose to return to a college or university in order to become pathology assistants. Common first careers include hospital corpsman or military medics, autopsy technicians, anatomic pathology technicians, cytotechnologists, medical laboratory technicians, clinical laboratory specialists, and histotechnologists. Those interested in a career as a pathology assistant may join the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants, but to do so as a student requires enrollment into an NAACLS-accredited program.