Get Gross! How to Become a Pathologists' Assistant
What is a Pathologists' Assistant and What Do They Do?
A pathologists’ assistant(PA) is a laboratory professional working under the supervision of a pathologist to aid in the diagnosis of disease. PA's are physician extenders, very much like physician assistants, with a similar level of training. Their primary duties involve the dissection of surgical specimens, termed “grossing,” short for gross examination. They may also perform autopsies. Typical autopsy duties of a pathologists’ assistant include evisceration(removal of the organs), prosection(examination of the internal organs), and report writing. Autopsy-only PA jobs can be found at large academic medical centers. PA's at smaller community hospitals may perform some autopsies, but the numbers are typically minimal(less than 20 autopsies per year). Forensic autopsy pathologists’ assistant jobs exist, but are uncommon. Some pathologists’ assistants work in medical research and specialize in the examination and/or retrieval of vital organs such as the heart and brain. A few use their experience to start their own autopsy services or pathology supply companies. Others go into laboratory management.
How do I become a Pathologists' Assistant?
To become a pathologists’ assistant, one can either be trained on the job or attend a pathologists’ assistant program.
The College of American Pathologists(the accrediting body for pathology laboratories) and the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments(federal regulations) require lab employees who gross to have a minimum of an associate's degree in laboratory science. However, employers typically prefer program trained pathologists’ assistants, as training someone on the job can be time consuming. At the time of this writing, there are 11 accredited schools in the US and Canada which offer pathologists’ assistant training programs, most at the master’s degree level. See the list of accredited PA programs on the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences website.
I am program trained and highly recommend this route to anyone seeking to become a pathologists’ assistant. Training programs offer the advantages of a well rounded medical education, professional connections, and invaluable clinical rotation experience.
Entrance requirements for pathologists’ assistant programs vary, but most expect a bachelor’s degree with courses in biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry or biochemistry, and microbiology. The minimum GPA requirement is usually 3.0 and above. Previous job experience in a laboratory environment, and completion of the GRE exam are also preferred or required. Undergraduate majors which provide the necessary coursework are science based and include, but are not limited to, biology, medical technology, and biochemistry.
One great way to gain practical work experience is to get a job as a pathology laboratory assistant, (or pathologists’ assistant’s assistant!). Typical duties of an assistant are: retrieving specimens from the operating room, accessioning them into a computer database, making cassettes, assisting with intraoperative consultations, maintaining logs on laboratory equipment, organizing specimens for storage, and assisting with autopsies(if they are performed where you work). I am proud to say that several of the lab techs I have worked with have gone on to become pathologists’ assistants. Others have gone to medical school.
Pathologists’ assistants are often willing to teach or mentor those interested in their profession. From my observation and personal experiences, they are usually happy to work with people who are friendly, helpful, and ask questions about specimens. This demonstrates a sincere interest in pathology and indicates the person possesses the aptitude to be a good future pathologists’ assistant(if pathology isn’t your bag of bones, you can still apply this to whatever you do in life).
Job shadowing is also an option, but it can be difficult to find a lab that allows this due to patient privacy reasons. As much as I enjoy teaching, my lab does not allow shadowers. Medical examiner/coroners offices have similar policies.The best way to find out if shadowing is an option is to contact a hospital pathology department or medical examiner/coroner's office directly by phone with your inquiry. Explain politely that you are interested in becoming a PA and would appreciate the opportunity to job shadow for a day. Let them know what steps you have already taken towards that goal(ie: related work, shadowing, volunteering, or college education you've completed), so they know you are serious, and not just a curiosity seeker. If they do not allow shadowing, I suggest inquiring if they know of anyone who does. It never hurts to ask!
What Kind of Licensing is Required to be a Pathologists' Assistant?
There is not a national license to practice as a pathologists’ assistant, but several states, including New York and Nevada, do require licensing. Employers may also require a pathologists’ assistant certification, which is granted by the American society of Clinical Pathology, after an applicant successfully passes a certification exam. The current prerequisites to take the exam are a baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited college/university, and the successful completion of a National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science accredited Pathologists’ Assistant program within the last five years.
Upon passing the certification exam, the pathologists’ assistant can use the abbreviation PA(ASCP) after their name to sound fancy and professional.
What is the Average Salary for a Pathologists' Assistant?
Salaries vary based on location and job responsibilities, and range from around $70,000 to upwards of $100,000 for those in management.
Note that this information is only applicable in the United States. Similar professions under different names can be found internationally, particularly in Australia and Europe, although they have differing salaries and educational requirements.
The American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants is the official organization dedicated to furthering the profession. Their website, http://www.pathassist.org is an excellent resource for those interested in more information on the profession.
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