What is Pathology?

Pathology is the study of disease.

Anatomic pathology involves evaluating tissues (surgical pathology) and cells (cytopathology) through variable magnifications using a microscope.

In surgical pathology, the goal of such microscopic evaluations is to make a definitive diagnosis of a patient’s disease. Virtually all tissues removed from patients during surgery are examined under the microscope by pathologists in order to determine whether or not a disease is present. Examples of surgical pathology specimens seen by pathologists include breast, prostate, skin, cervical, colon, and bone marrow biopsies. As a result, pathologists play an indispensable role in determining whether a patient’s illness is benign, inflammatory or cancerous.

The surgical patient’s subsequent treatment almost always depends on the surgical pathologist’s diagnosis. For this reason, doctors often refer to pathologists as the “physician’s physician,” a compliment that acknowledges the fact that the pathologist’s diagnosis represents a critical factor in determining a patient’s future care.

Cytopathology involves the evaluation of cells under microscope magnification. Pathologists examine cells obtained from: body fluids; solid tissues aspirated through needles; and body tissue scrapings.

The most widely known cytopathology examination is the Pap smear. A Pap smear entails scraping cells taken from the cervix, which are then spread on a slide, stained with a dye to color the cells, and examined by a pathologist using a microscope. Pap smears are considered screening tests, which provide another physician with information that suggests whether or not a potentially dangerous condition is present. If an abnormality is detected, the pathologist may recommend additional diagnostic procedures (such as biopsy of the affected tissue). Other cytopathology examinations may, in and of themselves, be diagnostic of a specific disease condition.