Position: Pathologist Field: Pathology Organisation: Capital and Coast District Health Board

Almost everyone who is admitted to hospital will need the services of a pathologist, but as a patient you will probably never get to meet one. A pathologist is a doctor who looks at the tissue or the fluid of the body and makes a diagnosis based on what they see or measure. Pathologists work behind the scenes and are vital in making diagnoses such as if a biopsy shows signs of cancer. Rather than basing a diagnosis on the symptoms of the patient they look closely at specific cells and can tell not only if your cells are cancerous but whether the cancer is malignant or benign, and therefore what the best treatment is likely to be.

Nature of Science

Our knowledge about our world is aided through the use of technology. Subtle differences in cell structure can be detected because of the use of dyes and the power of the microscope. Science often relies on observable evidence.

Catherine Koleda works for the Capital and Coast District Health Board in the pathology department at Wellington hospital. As doctors can not treat a patient until they know what the diagnosis is Dr Koleda must be able to make crucial judgements under pressure. She must also be sure of her diagnosis as a misdiagnosis could result in some very unpleasant, unnecessary treatment, or worse, have a patient with cancer who goes untreated. Despite these pressures Catherine really enjoys her work.

Pathology is fascinating, the human body is fascinating, and it is a very visual subject. I really like understanding the body in terms of what cells and tissue look like.

“Very often a patient that comes to hospital is sick and cannot be treated until they have a diagnosis. So I like that about [pathology], I know I am doing something important.”

A cancer cell is different in appearance to a normal cell, and by staining the cells with a variety of dyes and markers these subtle changes can be made more visible, but to an untrained person these differences look small. A skilled pathologist must be able to detect a tiny number of cancerous cells in a background of thousands of normal cells. A good eye, experience and a good knowledge of what makes a cancer cell is important for a good pathologist.

This article is based on information current in 2008.

    Published 21 July 2008