Three doctors pushing patient on gurney in hospital

The hidden heroes on the frontline of healthcare: the role of pathology in a hospital setting

“We save lives. We’re on the front line of the emergency department and intensive care units.”

This was the response we got from one pathology professional when we asked him to summarise his job. It’s an interesting one. Although most pathology tests are performed in laboratories, away from the hustle and bustle of hospital wards and operating rooms, with 70% of medical decisions relying on those tests, it’s safe to say a hospital couldn’t function without pathology.

We spoke to Dr Fergus Kerr, Executive Director of Medical Services at Peninsula Health, to get his view on why pathology is an important part of the bigger healthcare picture.

“The pathology laboratory is an integral and essential part of delivering timely, high quality care in any modern hospital setting.

There’s not really any clinical department of the hospital that doesn’t rely on pathology in some capacity, although the depth of interaction obviously varies.

Surgical areas are high users of anatomical and general pathology and our acute and critical care units are also heavily reliant. The latter often require turnaround times of just minutes so their interaction with the laboratory is particularly vital.”

Before taking on his current role, Dr Kerr was Director of the Emergency Department at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne.

“Pathology was essential in the effective running of the Emergency Department – not only to deliver high quality, timely care, but also in improving access and performance KPIs. We worked very closely with the Pathology Department to deliver what was a fantastic service.”

Technological advances in the pathology sector are improving hospital services, too. The development of state of the art machines (that can cut some test times from hours to minutes) has obvious benefits for the clinicians depending on results.

Dr Kerr described this development of the pathology sector as a ‘real success story’ but was keen to stress the importance of clinical judgement when requesting tests.

“The development of the pathology sector is really encouraging but as clinicians we do have a responsibility to be vigilant with regard to the appropriateness of pathology testing.

We must be aware that more does not mean better. We need to ensure that we are referring patients for appropriate tests to effectively diagnose and manage a condition – without instigating unnecessary extra treatments which waste patients’ time and cause discomfort or alarm that could have been avoided.”

So if pathology is vital to the rest of the hospital, why is there still a lack of understanding of its value?

This could be due to the fact that pathology professionals are often hidden away. Although some professionals hold dual clinical and laboratory roles, pathologists are often involved in the day-to-day care of patients through consultation;

“I would often see pathologists working closely with front line clinicians in interpreting complex results, or developing new investigative markers.

And my fondest experiences have been the times when laboratory staff would go out of their way to deliver a quick result on an urgent cerebrospinal fluid or crossmatch for a clinician. It’s great when the whole team works well together.”

And that’s really it in a nutshell. Without a positive relationship between pathology labs and clinical departments, patients would not receive the care they need. So although we might not see them as much as the clinicians working on wards, we know pathology professionals are heroes of healthcare, too.