Looking into the Pathology Mirror

Conversing with people early in their career has always been an exciting experience for me and, I hope, for those with whom I have spoken. I tend to get enthusiastic in discussing all the possibilities that lie ahead and try to keep the conversation focused on the individual in question. I try to avoid talking about my own career path unless someone specifically asks—but I keep it brief. One-on-one conversations tend to be very productive for the individual because we can delve deep into their questions, fears, concerns, hopes, and goals. Group discussions often end up being more informative for me, and I have learned a ton from listening to dynamic young people. I was recently gifted with the opportunity to lead 9 focus groups as part of a grant-funded project which included several groups with medical students and pathology residents. Although our focus was on forensic pathology, the groups were quite diverse. I would call the experience overall very positive and enlightening for all of us, but I was struck by a few observations that I felt the need to explore further on my own—so, you get to read a blog about it.

Pathology is a fascinating specialty after medical school that covers a large range of diseases and patient types, an even larger range of scopes of practice, and includes some of the lowest and highest paid jobs in the field. At the same time, the practices of pathology and medicine are evolving at an extremely rapid rate while medical knowledge is expanding exponentially. There is an entire industry based around paraphrasing the current literature for a given specialty because, even within a specialty, you can’t read every new study or follow every new development. It is this expansion that has created the demand by pathologists in the last 2 decades to be sub-specialists so that a focus on one particular area of practice will keep their expertise sharp, their diagnoses hyper-accurate, and their risk profile minimal. This expansive phenomenon in medicine in general but specifically in pathology is an excellent indicator that the field of knowledge is ripe for a disruptive innovation. It is common knowledge that the practice of anatomic pathology, for example, is based on a technique that is more than 100 years old—histology; however, what is not common knowledge is that the amount of data generated by reviewing a histology slide from, for example, a tumor, is 1/1000th or less than the data generated by performing genetic sequencing of that same tumor. Add to the mix the ability to perform transcriptional analysis, mass spectroscopy, metabolomics, lipidomics, phospholipidomics, glycobiological analysis, etc. and it becomes clear that what is contributed by an H&E pales in comparison to what we can know about a piece of tissue. There are barriers, you say? Cost, integration of information, usable outputs, or process:volume ratios? All true. But the technological ability to characterize a tumor across all these different attributes and mathematically reduce that to a multiplex assay which can perfectly classify and predict therapeutic responsiveness exists. Still don’t believe me? A collection of companies is focused on testing that has been variably called, “Universal Cancer Screening”, “Multi-cancer Screening”, and “Multi-cancer Early Detection”. These systems currently use sequencing across multiple loci to detect from 20 to 50 different cancer types. One such company can do so with stool to look for gastrointestinal cancer and is on the market today. Why am I going down this path of which many of you are already aware? Because when I was talking to a trainee recently, they told me that they originally wanted to go into forensic pathology but were talked out of it and were now considering doing GI pathology. Let’s break this down so you can understand my frustration.

GI pathology as a career is largely generating revenue through colonoscopy from screening. Yes, the field is diverse and the most complicated parts like liver, pancreas, IBD, etc. are part and parcel to the practice. But, from a C-suite perspective, the fiscal bulk of the value of the service is in biopsy reads from screening. Because of the interest in the field in the last two decades (increase in pathologists in GI) juxtaposed to the much-needed control and reduction of 88305 reimbursement (due to rampant misuse and overuse), there are a lot of GI pathologists in the United States. So many, in fact, that jobs for GI pathology are sort of hard to find. Add to the mix a product, already on the market, that can detect colon cancer in stool without screening colonoscopy and its risks, which is only the harbinger of a group of products that will arrive on the market which can do the same for many other cancers from stool, blood, etc., and one gets nervous about where GI pathology’s current revenue volume is headed. But then there is the recent recommendation that the screening age for colonoscopy be reduced to 45 (from 50). The increase in volume of biopsies from screening (if everyone was 100% compliant) would overwhelm some practices. Where is GI pathology as a specialty going? Do we have too many and should we be concerned about disruptive innovations to screening decimating revenue generating volumes? Or are we facing an overwhelming number of biopsies with the new screening guidelines? I wouldn’t dare try to predict where this is headed but there is clearly some “uncertainty” in the practice of GI pathology. And a practicing pathologist talked a resident out of forensics and into GI??

Let’s contrast this with forensic pathology so my point is clear. There are currently only about 500 FPs in the United States and there is a need—to meet minimum requirements for coverage—of 1200 FPS. That’s a difference of 700 FPs, all of which must be board certified pathologists. There are more than 50 current open full-time positions for FPs that are funded (i.e., actively recruiting to hire today) that were identified on the most common sites for these listings. Seven of these programs offer tuition repayment for FPs from $100,000 to $250,000. Outside of those seven programs, there are three federal programs that specifically offer loan repayment for FPs and a fourth for which they are also eligible. Doing the math, basically, anyone wanting to practice forensic pathology likely qualifies for a loan repayment program (hint: that’s not true for the majority of pathology jobs). Although the average salary for an FP is often reported as ~$110,000 (about half of the average salary for a pathologist according to publicly available data), the current open positions I mentioned have an average of $240,612 (with a range of $175,000 to $350,000). The work of forensic pathologists includes death scene investigation, varying levels of postmortem examination (e.g., chart review, external examination, complete autopsy, etc.), medicolegal reporting including court appearances, participation in public health investigations, participation with local government, etc. This role is vital to the functioning of society and is required by law to be performed. Stated another way, we will always need FP (and we desperately need them now!). It is very difficult to imagine a disruptive innovation or even a transformative innovation that will replace this role in the next several decades. That same can’t be said for other parts of pathology (see my GI example above). And yet, we struggle to find FPs. Why?

Certainly not the only reason but a valid and real reason that we struggle is the presence of microaggressions in the medical community. These are common for pathology in general but can be extremely harsh and rampant for forensics (even coming from other pathologists!). The real example I have given you of the resident selecting GI after being talked out of forensics is a true story. And, more importantly, it was reiterated by nearly every medical student and resident (and fellow) with whom we talked about their experiences. Considers these statements (which are direct quotes):

“You’re too smart to do pathology.”

“Why would you waste your brain on forensics?”

“You’re too good with people and patients to be a pathologist.”

“Forensics is a dead specialty (pardon the pun)”.

Excuse me?? Are you kidding? It’s not that these microaggressions are inappropriate because they are damaging to a young person’s passions and interests. It is that these microaggressions, which are heard repeatedly, are simply wrong. Pathology, if nothing else, is a data and knowledge heavy specialty where we spend most of our time thinking, solving problems, and receiving, processing, interpreting, and synthesizing data into a useful answer on which a clinician can act. And we don’t do it one patient at a time. We produce literally thousands if not tens of thousands of tests results per day in an average laboratory. Forensics requires highly intelligent, detail-oriented individuals who can not only synthesize an entire patient’s life and death into a succinct story—but they have to defend their opinion in court. Every day! I’d like you to ask your primary care doctor if every decision he/she made for each of their patients in one day they would be comfortable defending in court. Every decision! It requires a special person who is not only amazing with data and knowledge but extremely talented at interacting with people—many of which are trying to prove you wrong. Moreover, few medical specialties call upon the physician to routinely deal with families at the lowest point in their lives in every single encounter. A person that is good with people and patients is exactly the person that can become a successful forensic pathologist—one that provides meaningful care when care is most needed. And lastly, forensics is thriving as a job market (as I described). And yet, our “mentors” who train our medical students and pathology residents continue to provide microaggressions (or outright rebuke) for those brave, brilliant individuals who would choose forensics as a career. Considering the state of the field and the perks of the practice at the moment, forensics seems like a pretty smart choice today. But stepping back from this rhetoric to a 10,000 foot view—because, remember, this is me thinking through a problem and forcing you to read about it—the overall observation I have is that the field of pathology (internally) needs to understand where it is going, what its scope of practice will look like tomorrow, 5 years, and 10 years from now, and, more importantly, what the needs of our patient community are (alive or dead). Without a global view of the total need in pathology, how can we possibly have meaningful conversations with individuals early in their career that both enhance their passion and meet the needs of the community of practice?

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-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

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