Hello again everyone!
As with most clinical situations, there is often more going on than you can see on the surface. The classic example being the lab values that might have derangements that aren’t apparent clinically; something we rely on heavily in medicine. While most of the situations in these cases apply to diagnostic methods in patient care, sometimes those nuances exist outside of patient care. For example, a simple comment or phrase can hint at an individual’s potential biases and/or carry with them a weight of opinion that means more than what it sounded like.
Last January, I brought up the topic of stereotypes in pathology which seem to reflect common misconceptions about the field of laboratory medicine. This time I think I’d like to explore that topic a little more in-depth, as I’ve noticed a few things during my clinicals as a medical student. Those of us with careers or histories of lab work or pathology experience know that we’re mostly regarded as a “behind the scene” crowd. That can be true, and to a certain extent a necessary part of patient care, but what happens when these stereotypes catch up with you? What happens when they become a part of your training? Since I have the great luck to have been on both sides of this question, here are my thoughts on what it really means when lab folks are thought of as a mysterious secret hospital-basement society.
First of all, these stereotypes aren’t anything new. We’ve all been sharing and resharing the same story every couple of years from article to article. I shared a few last January: Dr. Lori Rasca’s “Lonely Life of a Clinical Pathologist,” Dr. Sarah Riley’s call to bring the lab to the forefront of medical practice, and survey after survey about things like burn-out and wages. Go ahead and google things about careers in pathology and you’ll get a mixed bag. Often times, you’ll see programs or departments tout the importance of a profession in clinical pathology. Yale University School of Medicine conducted a survey last March where they asked middle-school students “what does a pathologist do?” The responses varied—and were mostly wrong. So the department wrote a piece about the clinical roles of those in laboratory medicine addressing specialization, patient contact, and tech-innovation. One line that stuck out to me: “[you’ll] sometimes hear a surgeon say, ‘I’m only as good as my pathologist.’” Fantastic, I wrote about that last June where I talked about how the relationships between surgery and pathology are critical. The fact of the matter is, pathology is always changing; and with it, the roles of pathologists do too. An article from April 2011 in the College of American Pathology’s CAP Today featured Dr. Sylvia L. Asa and she wrote at length about the future of pathology in response to current stereotypes:
“The 2020 pathologist should not be someone who hides in the basement of a hospital and looks at glass slides or even whole-slide images, but someone who’s able to take all the information from the clinical pathology lab, from radiology, from endoscopy, from slides and the molecular lab, and sit down with the patient to explain the disease he or she has. That is how we will stay relevant in the public eye and every patient will know who their pathologist is. And we should make sure that the patient’s pathologist is the person who, when the patient searches the Internet, is an expert in the field.”
Next, medical students experience a myriad of sifted and specialized knowledge which changes scope and tone from one month/service/attending to another. When you’re in internal medicine, ID specialists are lazy; when you’re in surgery, IM residents are flustered; when you’re in ED, the other attendings don’t have as many thrilling stories; and when you’re in clinic with family medicine staff, you know no one else can handle the “front lines” like you guys do…right? Basically, everyone has a point of view and we naturally find ourselves working with other professionals who have specialized in the same field as us. But when you get too comfortable with your homogenous staff, that’s when those (otherwise normal) opinions can get complicated. Most of the time, pathology is viewed as an outsiders’ specialty. People might think you’re socially inept, or don’t like patients, or even can’t “cut it” on the wards. (That was harder for me to type than for you to read, trust me.) But it does happen; and when it becomes a conversation piece, med students have two classic options: Smile and agree with everything your attending says because their word is gold and they ultimately sign your evaluations or take the chance to address misconceptions and stereotypes—which do you think is easier? Earlier this year, a medical student from Ireland named Robert Ta wrote about his path to pathology in an article published in the International Journal of Medical Students (yes, it’s a real thing—and it’s great!). In it he discussed his enlightening experiences observing laboratory medicine for the first time and falling for the interdisciplinary work and diagnostic algorithms pathology offers. He even cited all-too-familiar classics we’ve all heard such as ““you must really hate dealing with people,” “[you must] have no clinical skills,” “[you have] no social skills,” “[you are] only interested in research,” “[you] must love working with dead people,” and everyone’s favorite “but you’re great with patients … why you would want to go into pathology?”
For the minority of students that figure out what specialty they like early on, those siren-songs can be a barrage to your patience. What ultimately happens is you could create a narrative of why you like pathology as an ad nauseum auto-pilot response, or you could try and engage people for their viewpoints and glean what insights you can—maybe you could even share some insight yourself. But something really interesting happens when you pursue these conversations a bit further: you learn a little more about the other person(s) and a little more about yourself in the process. I had heard the lattermost in the above list of “hits” a million times, and I used to think of it as a sort-of backhanded compliment. It wasn’t until I heard it from an attending I really respected, that my perception changed. I had done a full day’s worth of med student work in a particular clinic alongside my attending. It was full of difficult cases, challenging patients, biopsies, spot diagnoses, etc. On a few occasions I nailed a couple questions (a med student feather-in-cap moment) alongside interns and other students. At the end of the day, a conversation came up about interest in specialties, and I said pathology. Being greeted with a few comments/questions about it, along with a brief but great conversation, the attending finally said that they were impressed with me and to say that my skills would be wasted in the lab is a misnomer. Rather, my “clinical skills/work ethic” wherever I’d end up would be a valuable asset to patients anywhere in the hospital. (Um, that was a gold-star day. I think it was also a Friday, so just amazing overall.) So these stereotypic comments that used to make me feel frustrated, just got turned into one of my most memorable compliments—and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Turns out, medicine is full of moments like this. Where suddenly you learn or adjust a small piece of information and your point-of-view shifts to a new outlook. Dr. Justin Kreuter, a clinical pathologist, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, recently wrote a perspectives piece for Mayo Medical Laboratories. It was all about taking the time to critically reflect. He linked to a few interesting articles and talked about how he takes time each day to reflect on moments and experiences he had. A mindfulness of “deliberate practice” (one of the various ways we can practice becoming better at something) shows us that being aware of opinions, cause-and-effect relationships, and our roles in certain situations can shape how we move forward from various experiences. Check his articles out and take his advice; who knows what you might learn about frustrating moments in your day, when instead you might change the entire conversation?
See you all next time!
–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 actively involved in public health and laboratory medicine, conducting clinicals at Bronx-Care Hospital Center in New York City.