Serotypes and Stereotypes: the Path to Pathology

Hello and welcome back! After a hiatus for the holidays, I’m now back at school and gearing up to write about more Arbovirus-related public health endeavors. But, with projects on hold until now, I’m going to briefly depart the world of mosquito source reduction and epidemiology to discuss something that relates to my experiences in medical school. If you read my Lablogatory bio, you’ll see I spent a number of years studying and working in some of Chicago’s great clinical laboratories. In the past decade, I’ve been very close to the field of pathology and laboratory medicine. As I reach the “half-way” mark in medical school now, I have become increasingly aware of the way people across healthcare professions and specialties view laboratory clinicians. One thing that stands out strikingly is, what I argue, a potential stereotype.

Let me tell you one of my pet peeves. As a medical student, I am fortunate enough to learn and work under the guiding hands of physicians, nurses, and other educators. I work my hardest to learn how to provide the best care possible as I learn the skills needed for my future practice. In debriefing from a simulation, a good performance might spark conversation which culminates to the paramount question: “Have you thought about a specialty?” My heart set on it for a while, I often remark “Pathology” before I correct myself to “Clinical Pathology” since I’ve learned to curtail jokes about autopsies. (Disclosure: autopsies are a very important part of medicine, and the number of autopsies have experienced an unfortunate downward trend.)

As a result of my AP/CP answer, many people are often surprised, citing that I’ve been “great with the patient(s).” So that begs the question: why does my current answer surprise people? And more importantly, what perpetuates the stereotype of an introverted, microscope jockey who doesn’t want to be near patients? Yes, hyperbole, but I’ll come back to this stereotype.

While I was stateside visiting family, I coordinated some clinical shadow time with a colleague and alumnus of my medical school in her pathology residency at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). I spent time rounding with their teams in derm-path, watching sign-outs for endless cases, and getting up close and personal with autopsy training with another pathology resident. Each interaction with the faculty and staff were familiar and expected—full of enthusiasm and passion about their respective field of research or clinical work. What struck me as special, however, was that I was neither questioned for my motives in seeking pathology as a specialty, nor did I surprise anyone by being social and amicable. Everyone was quite sociable and proud of their work. My interactions were limited to the anatomic and clinical pathology departments so I suspect there may have been some bias. When I was a medical laboratory science student, I recall working with other disciplines, and, though I may have been in a nascent time in school to notice any stereotypes, they became clearer as I progressed through various jobs across the city. Large trauma centers, small community hospitals, even a shadow stint at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, all taught me valuable lessons on varied scope and different professional perspectives. And all the while, people seemed surprised I would be interested in such a misunderstood specialty.

On Lablogatory, I’ve enjoyed just about every post and one of my favorites is a series by Dr. Lori Racsa, “Lonely Life of a Clinical Pathologist.” Dr. Racsa discussed things about laboratory medicine I had observed in my time as a medical laboratory scientist: the critical role of pathologists on committees, the value of built-in mentorships, the [aforementioned] mystery about the particularities of the job to clinicians and laypeople alike, and the value of technologists like myself! One of the most poignant posts she wrote addressed the potential for a clinical pathologist to round with other “floor” clinicians. That was something I thought I’d dreamed up in my ambition to go to medical school, blazing a trail in Path where I could put some cracks in that stereotype. Dr. Racsa cited a great article from Critical Values by Dr. H. Cliff Sullivan where he recommended pathologists become more actively involved with fellow clinicians to directly improve patient outcomes. Having freshly attended several events at the ASCP National Meeting in Long Beach just prior to his article, I rode a wave of his “rally call” for changing the face and accessibility of pathology as a specialty. I saw myself in both his and Dr. Racsa’s stories of interdisciplinary teams, rounds, and committees and I’ve been excited ever since.

Back to that stereotype. Those articles about pathologists’ roles in medicine reflect a distinct lack of visibility to fellow colleagues. While we all recognize that nearly 100% of cancers are lab-dependent diagnoses and 70% of patient records are tied to diagnostic laboratory data, why are nearly half the residency spots for Pathology in the US National Resident Matching Program unfilled for the past few years? According to recent surveys by the American Medical Association, Pathology has one of the lowest relative rates of physician burn-out compared to other specialties. Pathologists are earning within 15% of the average physician income, with one of the highest relative satisfaction scores to match. So with lifestyle and career quality reporting positive values, I would argue that the seeming lack of interest stems from the possible lack of exposure of pathology as a dynamic field. The stereotype I’ve been talking about might also be one of attrition—“out of sight, out of mind.” Some great pieces of work on Lablogatory focus on promoting the value of laboratory medicine as an integral part of any patient’s care. Just recently, Dr. Sarah Riley discussed CO poisoning and public health, while her bio calls for “bringing the lab out of the basement and into the forefront of global health.” I feel close to that cause myself, hopefully made evident in my previous posts. Stay tuned for next month’s where I’ll be discussing the next steps in our public health project on Sint Maarten. After celebrating a successful 2016 effort presented by the Ministry to the Global Health Securities Agenda, our team has a number of projects lined up to demonstrate effective integration of lab medicine, epidemiology/public health, and social outreach.

A friend and mentor once told me to keep a completely open mind about my medical career and let whatever specialty fits best “find me,” so to speak. I couldn’t have asked for more sound advice. I’ll admit I have my biases and comfort zones, and for now that’s what they’ll remain. In this post, I had hoped to shine some light on the disparities in career reputation between pathology versus other disciplines. Is the stereotype founded in any truths I may have missed? Don’t pathologists have the social tact to work up and down the ladder, working with lab assistants to government health officials? Have you ever been challenged for your career choices in pathology? What reasons do you think contribute to the stereotypes I mentioned? What words can you offer students like me just starting to find a foothold in their newfound careers in medicine?

Leave your comments below! Thanks!

 

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Constantine E. Kanakis MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a BS in Molecular Biology and Bioethics and then Rush University with an MS in Medical Laboratory Science. He is currently a medical student at the American University of the Caribbean and actively involved with local public health.

2 thoughts on “Serotypes and Stereotypes: the Path to Pathology”

  1. Hello!

    I’m currently getting in Bachelor’s in Clinical Lab Science, and have been thinking of moving on to become a Pathologist’s Assistant. I was wondering if I definitely need to complete a PathA program and how far I could move up with that degree. Or if it would be more rewarding to become a pathologist instead. I also, love working in labs, but I want to know if there are possibilities of promotions/moving up in the CLS profession.

    Thanks!

  2. Madlen G–

    Hello and thank you for your comment! Kudos to your academic efforts in CLS I’m sure it will be rewarding. First of all, there are many differences to highlight between pathology assistants (PathAs) and pathologists. The most important one I would suggest you look into would be scope of practice. I’m sure you’ll encounter plenty of people in both positions during your schoolwork and rotations so don’t be afraid to go after some “off the bench” knowledge and simply ask questions. On one hand you may find the work of laboratory diagnostics and administration fulfilling, and on the other hand you might want to add advocacy and patient-impact into your direct list of responsibilities. While both professions are assuredly rewarding, it really comes down to what you see yourself doing in x amount of years. I suggest doing a bit of side reading to really see what really is your best fit.

    May I suggest the following:

    http://www.pathassist.org

    https://www.ascp.org/content/functional-nav/career-center

    No matter what you choose to do I wish you the best of luck!

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