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Fact not fiction: five pathology myths debunked

As the ‘black box’ of healthcare, pathology is plagued by perpetual myths and misunderstandings.

We’re sharing five of our favourites but we want to hear from you too. What’s the most common myth about pathology you hear? Or maybe you’d like to confess to your own confusion? Get in touch on Twitter or Facebook and share your best #pathologymyths.

1. Results are instant
Ever been amazed by how doctors on TV shows are able to get a sample, take it into the laboratory for testing and have their results back to the patient in a matter of minutes? Well actually it’s not quite that simple. It takes longer for a pathologist to analyse a tumour specimen than it takes for the surgeon to remove it and even common tests can take time.

Significant developments in technology are certainly helping pathologists to speed up diagnoses. Previously, for example, bacterial identification by a microbiologist would require at least 24 hours but this time has been reduced to a matter of minutes in many laboratories thanks to MALDITOF mass spectrometry machines. Pathologists are able to insert an organism on a metal plate into the machine and receive an instant identification of the bacteria, allowing for a much quicker diagnosis for the patient.

2. The collector performs the test
On average a phlebotomist in a busy collection centre will have just six minutes to welcome a patient, take their sample, explain the aftercare procedures and prepare for their next patient. But this doesn’t stop many visitors to a collection centre from assuming that the collector taking their blood is able to nip into a back room and carry out the (often multiple) tests ordered by their doctor.

The job of a phlebotomist is its own specialty that requires specific training and education. This is distinct from the training that a pathologist will undergo. Pathologists require up to 13 years of tertiary education, and scientists from 4-8 years, to qualify in one of the 9 subspecialties of the profession.

In reality those samples taken by the collector will be sent to a laboratory where pathologists and scientists in Australia are working around the clock to perform 100 pathology tests every minute of every day.

3. Pathology is all about blood tests
Approximately 12 million Australians have had a pathology test in the past 12 months. Although blood is one of the most common sample types required, today’s technologies allow testing on a wide variety of samples that are collected from the human body.

Samples used by pathologists other than blood include urine, saliva, sputum, faeces, semen and other bodily fluids, as well as tissue extracted via biopsy or surgery.

4. Pathologists have no bedside manner
Who is responsible for the care of patients? Doctors, nurses, GPs, surgeons… pathologists? Most people probably wouldn’t think of that last one; they assume pathologists stay hidden in labs, away from patient contact.

Although it’s true that not all pathology personnel have direct patient contact, many do – particularly haematologists, chemical pathologists, immunopathologists and medical microbiologists.

Even if a pathologist has never come into direct contact with a patient it doesn’t mean they’re not invested in their care. One of our favourite stories came from a pathologist who had begun to recognise one woman’s records after numerous failed IVF attempts. When the pathologist finally reported a positive result she had her own celebration.

5. General Practitioners are pathologists
Just like with collectors, many patients assume that their GP is performing the tests on their samples. Pathologists are often referred to as the ‘Doctors’ Doctor’ because without them, clinicians would not have the answers they need.

Pathologists spend a significant proportion of their time consulting with other health professionals, including General Practitioners and specialists, to explain test results and advise on next steps for diagnosis and treatment.