Pathologists' Assistants' Future is Healthy

A busy pathologist needs help -- the hospital budget doesn't allow for more pathologists, and medical technicians don't have the necessary skills. That's why pathologists' assistants are becoming so popular.

Cutbacks and limited budgets are usually not good things. But if you're interested in becoming a pathologists' assistant, they may work in your favor.

That's because health organizations that can't afford another pathologist may have enough money in their budgets to hire an assistant. And that's part of the reason why this career field is growing.

Pathology is the study of disease. Under a pathologist's supervision, pathologists' assistants help with and perform biopsies (examining tissue for diseases) and autopsies (determining the cause of death).

While the work isn't as glamorous as shows like CSI lead us to believe, the field of pathology can be rewarding for those who have the right stuff. "CSI and similar shows have opened the public's eye to pathology, specifically forensics," says pathologists' assistant (PA) Bryan Radosavcev.

"However, they don't represent the realities of daily work," he says. "Only a small percentage of PAs work in that kind of environment. Most work in a community hospital or private practice."

There are other parts of this career that make it less glamorous than what we see on TV. Wherever they work, pathologists' assistants have to deal with unpleasant smells from chemicals like formaldehyde.

PAs also work with extremely sharp instruments and have to be on their feet for a good part of the workday. Their duties include assisting with autopsies and examining human tissue and organ samples. Clearly, this isn't a job for someone who is squeamish about the human body and its various parts.

Emotionally, pathologists' assistants must be able to cope with tough issues because they deal with life and death situations all the time. And mistakes on the job could cost someone their life.

"Independent, timely and accurate decision-making is very important in our profession," says Lance Fuczek. He's the administrative director of a pathologists' assistants' program. "If we miss or under-sample a disease process, the pathologist may misinterpret the case. This can have very dangerous consequences for the patient."

Excellent communication skills are also important. When all of the samples are collected and examined, the PA must document the results.

"PAs have also taken on management responsibilities," Fuczek adds. "They play a central role in teaching medical residents and other trainees about pathology techniques."

Some say those duties are growing in importance with the changing health-care system.

The American Association of Pathologists' Assistants' website talks about the cost-effectiveness of PAs in budget-conscious times: "With the increased pressures on health-care systems to control costs, pathologists' assistants contribute to the overall efficiency of the laboratory or pathology practice in a cost-effective manner."

The Service Canada website describes another factor: "The demand for medical analyses and tests has increased considerably. The aging population is more and more aware of health issues, is increasingly concerned about its health problems and wants answers quickly."

The United States has offered formal training programs since the 1970s. Most programs take two years to complete and result in a master's degree. In addition, many U.S. employers require certification by the American Society for Clinical Pathology on top of a degree.

Dr. James G. Lewis is head of Duke University's pathologists' assistant program. His advice: "Get a good, solid, basic science background. Know the basics and make sure you know if pathology and dealing with a removed colon is something you want to spend your life doing. People have to like the work. The big paycheck will wear off real quick if you don't like performing autopsies."

With limited spots in many training programs, the demanding list of required traits and skills, and the nature of the work itself, being a pathologists' assistant isn't for everyone. But if you have what it takes, this career offers many rewards.

"I enjoy the benefits of working in the medical field," says Radosavcev. "But the years of training compared to being a physician is much less. And I am not on call, so I can have a stable home life. The compensation package, including salary, is wonderful, and the future of a PA is open to new arenas as new technology develops."

"Being a pathologists' assistant is a very rewarding profession," adds Fuczek. "You are part of the medical team that tries to assess disease processes so that the patient receives the best care and treatment possible in a timely fashion. The patients we serve benefit from the quality of our dissections and descriptions."


Duke University
Read an outline of Duke's pathologists' assistants program

American Association of Pathologists' Assistants
Find the latest information on issues affecting pathologists' assistants

American Society for Clinical Pathology
Learn more about this organization

Back to Career Cluster


  • Email Support
  • 1-800-GO-TO-XAP (1-800-468-6927)
    From outside the U.S., please call +1 (424) 750-3900
  • North Dakota Career Resource Network | (701) 328-9733