During November we’ll be celebrating National Pathology Week (November 7-13) – it’s an opportunity to celebrate the important contribution pathologists make to healthcare.

But what is Pathology?

Is it the work you see in television programmes like Silent Witness and CSI? Are they mad scientists working alone in a lab? Well, you’re not alone if that’s what you think. A recent survey found Forensic Pathology  (the investigation of death) is the public’s most common perception of the role of pathologists. In truth, forensic pathologists make up less than 1% of pathologists across the UK. Less than a third of those surveyed were aware that pathologists diagnose diseases in the living.

You may have even come across Pathology yourself without realising it.

Pathologists can be involved in care even before conception for some people, enabling couples to have babies through IVF. The pregnancy test and all the blood tests that are performed during pregnancy are all interpreted by Pathologists.

Throughout childhood, many children develop infections that require antibiotic treatment – Pathologists tell your doctor which antibiotics are appropriate.

During childhood, allergies may develop (to peanuts for example) – Immunologists diagnose and treat allergies.

During adult life many people have biopsies, a lump removed or an operation – any tissue removed would have been sent to a Pathologist to find out what it was.

In fact, there are 19 different specialties within Pathology. Histopathology is the largest specialty which involves studying human tissue with the naked eye and under the microscope to work out if there is any disease present.

As well as identifying disease, histopathologists can give information about how advanced it is, if it has responded to treatment, whether further treatment is required and what that treatment should be. In histopathology particularly, a large part of the work involves diagnosing cancer and studying tissue to work out what sort of cancer it is and how far it has spread so that the correct treatment can be chosen.

How many of specialties are you aware of? Well let’s see…

There’s Oral pathology, Dermatopathology, Paediatric pathology, Cytopathology, Neuropathology, Medical microbiology, Virology, Clinical biochemistry, Toxicology, Metabolic medicine, Genetics, Histocompatilbility and immunogenetics, Clinical embryology. Animals need pathologists too – there are even vets who specialise in the pathology of animals!

Esther Youd, Clinical Director of Pathology at Cwm Taf University Health Baord said: “Pathology offers a wide range of interesting careers in the different specialties.

“As a Histopathologist I often find I am the person who can solve the puzzle – making a diagnosis on a tissue sample or finding out how someone died – you have to have a good overview of everything, and find the critical piece of information that gives you the answer. Every day is different, always interesting and often challenging but hugely rewarding.”

With so many different specialties you might be surprised to know that the NHS employs in the region of 25,000 staff within Pathology alone and accounts for £2.5 billion a year – that’s nearly 4% of NHS budget.

The science of pathology is at the heart of every branch of medicine. The doctors you meet in your surgery or hospital all depend on the knowledge, diagnostic skills and advice of some of the 4000 Pathologists and 20,000 pathology scientists working in the UK. Whether it’s a GP taking a cervical smear or a surgeon wanting to know the nature of a lump removed during an operation, the answer is provided by a Pathologist.

Because a lot of pathology work is done behind the scenes, many people are unaware of its vital contribution to modern medicine. In fact, 70% of all diagnoses made in the NHS involve pathology.

Increasingly Pathologists are responsible for the direct care of patients, for example those with anaemia, leukaemia, immune and metabolic disorders like diabetes or high cholesterol.

So it’s not all Silent Witness and CSI but without the detective work of Pathologists investigating disease, there would be no firm answers and improving or even maintaining the quality of medical care would be impossible.

To find out more about Pathology services across Cwm Taf University Health Board visit http://cwmtafuhb.wpengine.com/services/pathology/

Silent Witness, CSI or Mad Scientists. What is Pathology?