Even if we are not as visible to the patients that we care for as other physicians, pathologists are amazing! Of course, I admit that I’m biased since I am a pathology resident but, this does not make this fact any less true. Others may not always realize that pathologists often have to make life altering diagnoses on the most miniscule of tissue samples. Or that we need to incorporate clinical histories, imaging, and previous clinical test and pathology results just as much as the primary clinician, I’ll dare say, sometimes, even more so, since we often do not have the opportunity to talk with the patient face-to-face. And that in the future, especially as precision medicine develops an increasing foothold in the treatment decision making process, we should, and will be, taking more active leadership roles within multidisciplinary teams.
One of the places where I feel that pathologists can show their value to the patient care team is in the multidisciplinary conference (MDC) setting. These can include tumor boards where we discuss specific patient cancer cases or other interdepartmental conferences where we explore an area of common interest that doesn’t necessarily have to be neoplastic. “Doctor” is derived from the Latin word, docere, which means “to teach” and it is within MDC’s that we can shine as teachers. It is impossible to learn about you need to know in medical school in terms of patient care. Not only is the fount of knowledge ever increasing but also our training directs us toward subspecialization since the volume knowledge is so vast, we have to choose which areas we will spend more time mastering.
Way back in the day, surgery residents had to spend significant time (often at least six months) rotating on the surgical pathology service. I find that these more experienced attendings are often the ones who scrub out and sit with our pathologists at the multi-headed scope during frozen sections. And they are also the ones who can make the surgical pathology diagnosis and know the staging summaries even better than junior, and even some senior, pathology residents. But training requirements change. Most of the other clinical physicians we will interact with as colleagues were not trained in this manner.
One of the reasons I chose hematopathology was because I enjoy the daily increased face-to-face interaction I experienced while on this rotation. At most of the hospital sites I’ve trained (four at my previous program and two at my current program), hem/onc physicians and fellows often make the trek to the pathology department to discuss patient cases with the hematopathologist, especially over the microscope. They had some idea of what they were looking at, too. In fact, at a couple of the programs I interviewed (Hopkins and UW), hem/onc physicians are, or were in past in the case of UW, responsible for reading the liquid specimens (peripheral blood smears and aspirates). They also often had multiple interdisciplinary conferences – leukemia, lymphoma, coagulation/benign heme.
But, since I’m on a surgical pathology rotation right now, I was thinking about when we interact most with our surgeons – and I think that is during tumor board. A few of the “old school” surgeons will scrub out and come to the department to look over a frozen with us but most often than not, this is not the case. But during tumor boards, there is always active discussion which includes the pathology in order to come to a treatment decision on not-so-straightforward cases. And these are opportunities to demonstrate just how important the pathologist is to the process. At least in the difficult cases, we do not merely write out diagnoses for other doctors to read and move on without us to treat the patient. It is in these moments when we not only educate but can also actively participate in helping to direct care. But in order to do so, we need to be able to integrate the clinical, epidemiologic, morphologic, radiologic, ancillary diagnostic, and prognostic (lots of “-ogics” there) factors along with know the potential treatment alternatives. We don’t just deal with the morphologic and leave everything else to the referring physicians…at least, if you want to be the best pathologist that you can be. This is also the time when we can leave a lasting impression on other trainees (medical students, residents, and fellows) about how a pathologist can contribute when added to the team mix so that they will be more apt to seek out and work together with pathologists when they become attending physicians.
We are the physicians who understand the intricacies and implications of many of the ancillary tests if we understand well how they are performed and why and also what can cause erroneous or false positive/negative results. I think that I learned a lot of those types of things through serving as an accredited lab inspector (or you can help with your department’s lab self-inspections) and also by being more pro-active during my CP rotations to work with the lab staff and not just sit at my desk and read a book (or study for boards). And we can help guide other physicians regarding which tests are useful for specific situations and which tests really won’t impact prognosis or treatment management. So, be deliberate during your rotations! Try to understand the “big picture” and how important we can be (and really are) in the patient safety and care process! I think that tumor boards and interdepartment MDC’s are a great venue for us to showcase the “true” contributory potential of what pathologists to the patient care team.
-Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a third year resident physician at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ.