What is pathology?

Pathology is the study of disease. It bridges science and medicine and underpins every aspect of patient care, from diagnostic testing and treatment advice to the use of cutting-edge genetic technologies and the prevention of disease. Pathologists work with other doctors, scientists, nurses and healthcare professionals in hospitals and GPs’ surgeries to diagnose, treat and prevent illness.

The importance of pathology

Millions of pathology tests are carried out every year for every man, woman and child in the country. Many major advances have been made by pathologists, for example in the successful treatment of cancer, ensuring safe blood transfusions, developing vaccines against infectious diseases and the treatment of inherited conditions. 

It isn’t all about dead bodies

In a recent survey, over two thirds of people thought that pathologists worked only with the dead, as shown in television programmes like CSI and Silent Witness. In fact, although some pathologists do perform autopsies (also called ‘post mortems’), this is not a true representation of the breadth of pathology. Every time someone has a blood test, cervical smear or a lump removed, it’s a pathologist who looks at the specimen to work out if there is any disease present or not. 

The reality

Pathologists don’t all do the same job. There are 19 different specialties, with their own training programmes and exams. Pathologists work in laboratories, in clinics and on hospital wards. You might meet some of them face to face, but many work with other doctors providing information that they need to make a diagnosis and decide what treatment to offer.

Each of these specialties has a different appeal and combination of laboratory and clinical work. Of the 19 specialties, there are four main ones:

  • chemical pathology ( the study of the biochemical basis of disease)
  • haematology (the study of disorders of the blood)
  • histopathology (the study of disease in human tissue)
  • medical microbiology (the study of infection) 

There are other smaller specialties, all of which are growing in importance. These include molecular genetics, toxicology and histocompatibility and immunogenetics. 

Did you know?

Pathology is involved in over 70% of all diagnoses made in the NHS.