Reminiscing Tampa

ASCP 2014 at Tampa provided the perfect getaway for a New Yorker forced to wear fleece early October. The same attire seemed to be mocking me the moment I stepped out of the Tampa International Airport on Wednesday night. It was a pleasant surprise and I gleefully tucked it right into my suitcase.

At the hotel, I took a quick glance at the lecture schedule. Having already missed the first day, I was eager to extract the best out of the next two days. I was thrilled to see an array of topics specially aimed at residents. Also, many lectures focusing on novel or state-of-the-art techniques, including molecular methods, virtual microscopy, digital pathology, informatics, etc. It seemed to me like “The future beckons!!” Being a hard-core morphologist, it was a tough call for me, as I would have to forego a host of other good lectures. But I decided to focus on the resident review courses and ancillary techniques.

Keeping with my agenda, I set the ball rolling on day two by attending the lecture on “Automating Anatomic Pathology.” It was an eye opener for me, dealing with the scope and future of automation in anatomic pathology lab. “Anatomic Pathologist’s Role in Patient Safety” was the next. Dr. Silverman cited studies revealing that soft tissue lesions, with an error rate of 20-30%, led the list of organ specific error rates. He deliberated on the importance of second opinions in error reduction. He aptly concluded his lecture with the remark, “the pathologist is the Final Quality Assurance Officer or ‘the buck stops here.’” It was a huge wake up call for me.

I moved on to my first lecture on Molecular Pathology, “Welcome to the Beginning: Molecular Pathology for the General Pathologist and Molecular Pathologist.” It was just the right one for me and helped me firm up basic concepts. In the evening I attended “Molecular Diagnostic Methods in Oncology: an update on practical aspects.” Dr. Larissa Furtado and Dr. Yue Wang from University of Chicago were simply brilliant in elucidating the role of molecular techniques in oncologic practice. The prior morning session, helped me understand the deliberations in this talk much better.

I made it a point to attend most of the Resident Review courses. Though my Board Exams are two years away, I took it as a perfect platform to acquaint myself with the “hot” topics. I spent almost the entirety of day three attending the courses. A packed audience was testimony to these sessions’ popularity. Most of the speakers were brilliant. The case based presentations followed by an interactive voting format helped keep us all fully involved. However, the lab administration and last day hematology section could have been better.

In between, I found some time to listen to one of my all time favorites: Dr. Goldblum’s trademark lecture on soft tissue pathology. He quipped in his inimitable style “Don’t hunt for lipoblasts to diagnose a liposarcoma” and warned us of the vast plethora of “pseudolipoblasts” lurking around. Rather, he stressed the importance of analyzing the entire histology in the correct clinical context.

Let’s wander into the poster sessions! We had a total of twelve posters from our program itself, probably the largest representation from a single center. I had four posters and one of them was selected as a finalist in the Best Resident Poster section. It was an entirely new experience for me. However, I did some homework to prepare myself for the judging session. The judges on both the days were very pleasant and spent a significant amount of time discussing the work with me. It was disappointing not to get the award, though I knew the competition was tough.

The evening Mixology Lab was the perfect concluding session in the backdrop of the setting sun across the scenic Hillsborough river. There was delicious food and wine as Dr. Baloch announced the various poster award winners. It was special for me for another reason, as my very good friend Shree Sharma was one of the “top 5 under 40” award winners.

Mixology Lab attendees soaking up the sun.
Mixology Lab attendees soaking up the sun

It would be so improper if there were all work and no play. Friday evening provided the perfect opportunity to explore the city. I went out with friends to the Ybor City, taking the streetcars, which surprisingly provided 50% discount to conference attendees. Ybor City was such a happening place, full of fun. While strolling along the 7th avenue, we took pictures with people celebrating Gasparilla festival, dressed as pirates. A glass of sangria at the historic Columbia Restaurant provided the perfect toast to end the day.

My trip was not to end here as I had already registered for the TRIG Genomic Pathology Workshop for Saturday. This was my first exposure to such a session in molecular technology. We were divided into small groups. In a case based approach, the workshop deliberated on teaching principles related to the development of genomic assays and result interpretation. There were four cases pertaining to single gene testing, prognostic gene panel testing, how to design a cancer gene panel and whole genome sequencing, respectively. Both Richard Haspel and Andrew Beck were simply brilliant and they took special care to approach each group separately and clarify their doubts. It was a highly stimulating experience for me and I learned a whole new facet of pathology. The utilization of online genomic pathology tools for result interpretation appealed to me. It also gave me the opportunity to work with fellow residents from other programs in a very close and interactive manner. Though the warm sun outside beckoned, I believe this was the perfect finale for three full days of extensive learning activities.

A trip to Tampa would be incomplete without a visit to the Florida Aquarium. I took a relaxed tour of the aquarium after the workshop, visiting the lovely marine friends. When I boarded the flight back to New York on Sunday afternoon, I felt very content. It was also reassuring to see that ASCP indeed cares about resident education and needs. The meeting opened my eyes towards the new horizons in pathology and how many options lie before us for shaping our careers.

 

rifatpassportpic

-Rifat Mannan, MD is a second year Pathology resident at Mt Sinai St.-Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York.

Resident Concerns, Part 2: Fellowship Applications

So, continuing on with resident concerns I heard about during conversations at the 2014 CAP Residents Forum and Annual Meeting, let’s move on to the fellowship application process.

One nice offering by the Residents Forum for the past two years at the Annual Meeting is a mock fellowship interview. The process was simple in that I only needed to fill out a brief application prior to the meeting with my fellowship interests and I was matched up with a member of the CAP Board of Governors or another CAP national leader who either practiced or had experience in my area of interest (or as close to it as CAP could find out of the available pool of mock interviewers). Once matched, I emailed my personal statement and CV to my mock interviewer (who turned out to be someone I already knew from my work on a CAP Council). I also participated in the mock interviews last year with a pathologist who I didn’t know beforehand. Both times, I received valuable feedback on my submitted materials and advice for the actual interview as well as an open invitation to contact them in the future if I had questions or needed more advice. I highly recommend these mock interviews if you are attending a future CAP Annual Meeting.

Obtaining fellowships can be even more competitive than getting into a residency. There are far fewer spots in that some may only offer one position per year in that subspecialty, programs may have already filled their positions with internal candidates, and the majority of residents (96%) apply for at least one fellowship (85% of third and fourth year residents according to the 2014 ASCP Fellowship and Job Market Survey had already accepted fellowship positions by the time of this survey during the RISE).

The trend these days is to complete at least one fellowship (56% answered yes to this question on the ASCP survey) and many often complete two (39% on the ASCP survey indicated that they would pursue two fellowships). I personally also know individuals who completed three although they are in the minority.

And it’s currently fellowship application season. Even though the suggested deadline is December 1st, we all know that most programs start accepting applications in September. I called some programs in August with questions and they had received applications already! Suffice it to say, from totally anecdotal evidence that I’ve heard, it seems that there are two periods for interviews: Oct/Nov for those accepting applications early and Jan/Feb for those who wait until December 1st to look at their applications. Even from friends in other specialties also going through this process, it seems that the process actually begins the year prior to application.

For those who want to be ahead of the game, at least start getting your CV and personal statements together. Since I’ve been updating my CV whenever something new came up since college, the CV was no problem. But I can tell you that I wished that I had started on the personal statement as a second year. I thought that I was being a semi-early bird to write my initial draft in August. But it took about a month of back-and-forth feedback from people who I asked to read it for me to whittle it down to less than one page. Turns out that most programs want something short and sweet (one page or <500 words). One program even wanted <250 words so I gave them a super abridged version of what I submitted to other programs. So, second years, start now so that you can submit everything in complete form on September 1st. The other part of applications are letters of recommendation. I’ve only heard residents from one program tell me that their letter writers will give them a letter within a day after being asked. If you’re like me, you’ll probably need to ask your letter writers way in advance and sometimes, give quiet reminders. So start early if you want letters ready by the time you submit.

The controversial issue that I always hear whispers about at the three Residents Forums I have attended is that of a standardized fellowship match like we had when we applied for residency. There are pros and cons for and against a standardized match. I was speaking with someone from the Association of Pathology Chairs (APC) and he supported a match. I would agree that it would deter residents from being subjected to undue pressure from programs to decide quickly once an offer is made (most 4th year residents who I spoke with said that they had up to 1 week at most to decide). It would also eliminate the situation that many of them found themselves in where they had accepted a position but later interviewing programs encouraged them to still interview and disregard their previous acceptances (which I think is unethical and I’d politely decline to interview at that program). But I can understand the conundrum that the later interviewing programs that follow the suggested CAP deadlines are subject to when many of their desirable candidates have already signed by the time they interview.

Unlike when the NRMP decided to go a match system for residencies, and later on, to bar pre-matching from participating institutions, the incentives and ability to leverage are very different when it comes to fellowships. Most fellowship programs offer a small number of single digit positions which they can usually easily fill without a centralized application service. And fellowships are a quasi-limbo state between school and our first “real” job. The job market does not cater to regulation and it is hoped that free competition is enough to ensure that everyone ends up where they are meant to be (although we know that connections and word of mouth still matter, especially in the small world of pathology). Programs (supposedly 51% from one study) will also often fill their spots with internal candidates and residents often feel the need to apply earlier and undertake audition rotations for the most competitive fellowships (eg – 2nd year for dermatopathology). While a standardized match may alleviate some of the aforementioned pressures, it does provide some of its own. Residents often have to spend more money to interview at a larger number of programs to feel secure that they will match somewhere and they also need to wait until later in the year to learn their fate. They also would likely have difficulty if they are trying to match for two successive fellowships which is not that unheard of, especially when those fellowships are related.

So, in terms of a standardized match, even though I usually have an opinion on most topics, I’m not sure which is better and the jury is still out. But I do know that the ability to incentivize programs into such a match process is much more difficult than it was for residency programs. It does seem though that residents do prefer a standardized application timeline according to multiple ASCP surveys even if they don’t support a match process. APC and PRODS (program directors section) tend to support a pan-pathology fellowship match while other organized groups within pathology and most residents remain skeptical that one would solve all the issues on both the resident and institution sides of the equation.

Well, for my compadres who are wading in these murky waters this interview season as I will also be, it’s a moot point. So I leave you with this: CAP had a great webinar last year by two pathologists-in-training who had survived this process as well as a program director. The webinar can be accessed here as well as a Q&A FAQ PDF from that webinar.

References:

  1. KD Bernacki, BJ McKenna, and JL Myers. Challenges and Opportunities in the Application Process for Fellowship Training in Pathology. AJCP, 2012; 137: 543-552. Accessed at http://ajcp.ascpjournals.org/content/137/4/543.full.pdf+html
  2. WS Black-Schaffer and JM Crawford. The Evolving Landscape for Pathology Subspecialty Fellowship Applications. AJCP, 2012; 137: 513-515. Accessed at http://ajcp.ascpjournals.org/content/137/4/513.full.pdf+html
  3. JM Crawford, RD Hoffman, WS Black-Schaffer.Pathology Subspecialty Fellowship Application Reform, 2007-2010. AJCP, 2011; 135: 338-356. Accessed at http://ajcp.ascpjournals.org/content/135/3/338.full.pdf+html
  4. RE Domen and A Brehm Wehler. An examination of professional and ethical issues in the fellowship application process in pathology. Hum Path, Apr 2008; 39(4): 484-488.
  5. N Lagwinski and JL Hunt. Fellowship Trends of Pathology Residents. Arch Path Lab Med, Sept 2009; 133(9): 1431-1436. Accessed at http://www.archivesofpathology.org/doi/pdf/10.1043/1543-2165-133.9.1431
  6. JL Myers, SA Yousem, BR DeYoung, ML Cibull (on behalf of ADASP). Matching Residents to Pathology Fellowships: The Road Less Traveled? AJCP, 2011; 135: 335-337. Accessed at http://ajcp.ascpjournals.org/content/135/3/335.full.pdf+html

Chung

-Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a third year resident physician at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ.

PGY-1: First Month

So, as another July 1st has come and passed, neophyte first years have begun their training in pathology residency training programs across the country. Many will begin with either a bootcamp-style orientation and/or an introduction to surgical pathology. Although I do have a PGY-1 friend who started with a CP rotation (and not an intro one at that).

I was fortunate to have a creative surgpath director who has an interest in different styles of medical education during my PGY-1. During the last two weeks of June, in addition to the general administrative orientation requirements, we had what we affectionately refer to as our “bootcamp.” First, we were taught proper blade/cutting technique with various food products (eg – potatoes, bratwurst) to get a feel for how to adjust our cutting technique for various specimen consistencies.

She was truly dedicated and personally went to a butcher in Chicago and picked up pig organ blocks three times for us during those two weeks. Then she and one of our two surgical fellows instructed us in the Rokitansky en bloc method of autopsy dissection after we had watched a narrated DVD that she had created from the previous year PGY-1 training sessions. We then would have to complete a fourth unsupervised pig block dissection and need to score at least a 75% in order to pass our autopsy competency exam. Those who did not pass, had to repeat the exam.

We also learned how to cut mock uteri and prostates since these are common specimens. She had molded and frozen ground turkey to simulate these organs and even added surprises like chick peas to represent leiomyomas. We practiced how to bivalve and cut the uteri for both endometrial and cervical cancers as well as how to gross prostates…although I did go through the whole year and never get one until I rotated in the fall of my second year at the VA where I got them almost daily.

Additionally, in order to learn how to cut frozen sections, we took ten sections from various organs from our pig blocks and embedded, cut, and stained frozen sections. This way we could understand how certain sections cut better than others (eg – fatty tissue is more difficult to cut), how to orient them, and how to cut them well without folding and unevenness. We were then graded on our sections for frozen section competency exam. For those who did not pass, they got some personal remediation at the cryostat with our assistant director of surgical pathology.

In the gross room, we had PAs who were good at teaching. We practiced dictating biopsies and placentas, grossing placentas, and grossing “smalls” like an appendix or gallbladder. Twice a week, we had multi-scope subspecialty sessions in dermpath, liver, renal, and neuropath since most of these types of specimens go to either our fellows or the subspecialty pathologists and our first years rarely saw them.

We initially started with a six-person, six-day schedule of frozens, grossing biopsies/smalls/bigs preview, grossing bigs, autopsy, peds path, and neuropath for 1.5 months. Our PAs usually gross our biopsies and benign smaller specimens. Then we were whittled down to a four-person, four-day schedule of frozens, preview, bigs, and autopsy with two of us taking “mandatory” vacations. The two residents that remained on SP after our five months of intro to SP were incorporate into our standard three-person, three-day schedule of frozen/grossing bigs, biopsy/smalls signout/bigs preview, and bigs signout.

At my new program, it is different because we don’t have surgpath fellows. Since we are a small program, each senior resident serves as a co-chief and one of their responsibilities is the training of the PGY-1 residents in surgpath during an initial one-month intro to SP rotation. Other senior residents on the surgpath rotation also help out with the teaching. They also give AM lectures on grossing topics in Lester’s Manual of Surgical Pathology and the specific nuances of the grossing preferences of our attendings.

As for me, I start off with a comprehensive CP rotation that combines working in both the chemistry and microbiology sections. As a PGY-1 here, they have 2 months of ‘Wet Lab’ or an intro to CP rotation. But since I am a PGY-3 transfer, I am a cross between a PGY-1 in terms of knowing how things are exactly done here and a senior resident. So this month for me combines intro to SP, Wet Lab, and the subsequent comp CP rotation that would come after Wet Lab. So, I get to gross a little (since things may be done differently here), learn about where and how things are done in the labs, and study more specialized CP topics. Since I came from a program where we rotate at four different hospitals for surgpath and can be self-directed in terms of CP, this works fine for me but still can be initially daunting in terms of trying to fit in do things the way they would like them done here.

So what do you think are the best ways to train PGY-1 residents most effectively? Should they start off with an intro to SP rotation and how should that be structured in terms of time, topic areas, and teaching of those topic areas? Or does it matter if they don’t do an intro to SP rotation and go straight into a CP rotation? And who should teach them how to gross? Let us know how things are done at your institution.

 

Chung

-Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a third year resident physician at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ.