A pediatric pathologist is a licensed medical doctor who works in a clinical laboratory, analyzing tissue and fluid samples to diagnose diseases. He or she specializes in describing diseases that appear in infancy and childhood, such as congenital conditions and inherited autoimmune disorders. Some pediatric pathologists specialize further, concentrating on neurological disorders, cancers, or gastrointestinal problems. Most pathologists work in hospital labs, though some professionals work in private labs that provide testing services for many different independent practices.
When a pediatrician cannot confirm a diagnosis based on physical exams and imaging tests, he or she orders pathology tests on blood, body fluid, stool, or tissue samples. A skilled pediatric pathologist utilizes sophisticated lab equipment and testing supplies, including high-power microscopes and chemical dyes, to check for abnormalities in samples. With the assistance of lab scientists and technicians, the pathologist attempts to identify problems as quickly as possible so the appropriate treatment measures can be taken for the patient right away.
During lab testing, a pediatric pathologist may discover signs of cancer, hormonal deficiencies, viral infections, genetic anomalies, or one of many other problems that can affect a young person's health. Once the pathologist is confident in the diagnosis, he or she usually writes a report or fills out a form to document findings. The information is quickly passed on to physicians, who make the ultimate decision about treatment.
Most of the time, pathologists do not have personal contact with patients. Some medical situations, however, require a pediatric pathologist to intervene in order to collect samples directly from the bodies of sick infants and children. Pathologists perform fine needle aspirations to extract spinal fluid, bone marrow, pieces of heart tissue, or cells from suspicious tumors. Patients may or may not be anesthetized during sample collections, so pathologists must be able to interact effectively with young people in order to keep them calm and inform them about the procedures.
Extensive education and training are needed to become a pediatric pathologist. In most countries, professionals must complete four years of medical school, four years of pathology residency training, and an additional one to two years in a pediatric pathology fellowship. During residency and fellowship training, a new doctor works alongside experienced pathologists to learn about hospital procedures, study common pediatric diseases, and master his or her laboratory skills. A successful trainee can take a national exam to earn board certification and start practicing unsupervised in a hospital or private lab.