The Lonely Life of a Clinical Pathologist: Finding a Mentor

Over the last few blog posts I have spoken about my involvement in the laboratory and hospital to find other people interested in clinical pathology. While this has helped fuel my passion for laboratory medicine, one of the issues that made me feel the loneliest was the responsibility I felt as a new pathologist and not having someone to help share that burden.

As a pathology trainee I saw several new pathologists start their positions in microbiology, hematology, and even anatomic pathology. They always seemed to be cool, calm, and collected (unless they were running around trying to get their research published).  What I did not focus on was that they also had a built-in mentor (the experienced pathologist) who was there to discuss a tough case or help them make a difficult decision.

When I took a community practice based job I was immediately entrenched in a decision making role. The sense of responsibility I felt to our patients, and making sure those decisions affected care in a positive way, was more overwhelming than I expected. The decisions included items such as which instruments to bring into the lab, when to report certain isolates, and even how to handle irate clinicians about the way we report our results. Every time I encountered a new situation I had not experienced first-hand in residency, I wanted to run my approach by someone to make sure it was the right way of doing things. I had one mentor I am pretty sure I texted every day the first two weeks of my job (thanks Dr. Lars Westblade!) for every single technical question that came up in microbiology. While it may seem excessive, it was the only thing that gave my decision making confidence at that time.

As the year went on, other mentors from training were also there for me, but I realized I needed a mentor on site that I could run major decisions by, as they understood the environment I was in more than my training mentors could. I was hesitant to seek advice from my bosses, as I was hired for my clinical pathology expertise, but as I reached out for guidance, I came to find the senior pathologist could guide me in the politics of my current situation while I could make decisions on the technical background. I can now see that having a senior pathologist with a wealth of information on how to handle situations and clinicians has been invaluable to the start of my career. The wisdom imparted has given me direction and experience in making decisions that residency could not fully prepare me for, such as handling physicians not happy with aspects of the lab or employees who did not want to perform tasks I asked of them.

Beyond individual mentors, another area that helped me with technical aspects of my job has been belonging to clinical pathology societies. American Society for Microbiology has several different list-serves you can post questions and get answers back from experts all over the country and world. The American Association for Clinical Chemistry has a board called “The Artery” that you can also post questions to and experts will answer. These formats have been priceless when seeking advice on certain topics literature does not seem to cover and are examples of why belonging to professional societies really bolsters your career.

As the year has progressed and I have made one decision after the next, my confidence has been built up so that I don’t have to discuss every decision with my mentors; that being said, I still have them on speed dial. While I think that responsibility is one area that residency was not able to fully prepare me for, I can see that it is a work in progress and one aspect of my job that will continue to motivate me to be the best I can be and make the best decisions for our patients.

Now to hear from you: did responsibility overwhelm you your first year of practice? How do you utilize mentors and professional societies to help approach unique and new situations?

 

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-Lori Racsa, DO, is the director of microbiology, immunology, and chemistry at Unity Point Health Methodist, and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University Of Illinois College Of Medicine at Peoria. While microbiology is her passion, has a keen interest in getting the laboratory involved as a key component of an interdisciplinary patient care team.

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