January 22, 2014

What is a PA?

I've had a lot of people ask me what type of graduate program I am in so I wanted to take the time to explain to you what a PA is. There are 2 kinds of PA's.  There's a Physician Assistant and then the lesser known Pathologist Assistant.  I am currently in a Pathologist Assistant program.

The Program
There are only 8 accredited Pathologist Assistant programs in the US: Indiana University, Duke, West Vriginia, University of Maryland, Drexel in Philadelphia, Rosalind Franklin in Chicago, Wayne State in Detroit, and Quinnipiac in Connecticut.  I chose Indiana University because of it was one of the closer universities to my family (in Alabama) and because it was in a not-so-scary city (Indianapolis).

Most of these schools offer a 2-year Master of Science program.  Admission is usually based on courses taken and GPA from undergraduate studies, experience, and GRE scores. The programs are almost identical and require one year of classwork followed by a year of clinical rotations. Once you complete the program, you are eligible to take the certification exam through the American Society for Clinical Pathology.

The Job
Pathologist Assistants are exactly what the name implies:  assistants to pathologists.  Pathology is the study and diagnosis of disease.  Pathologists are specialized doctors that view slides of different tissues and fluids and make diagnoses.  In  order to get the tissue on the slides, multiple steps have to be taken.
Once the biopsy or tissue arrives at a laboratory, someone has to gross the specimen.  This entails ensuring accuracy of the type of tissue with patient name and describing the specimen.  Larger types of specimens require dissection in order to get small enough pieces of tissue to be processed.  Once grossing has been finished, the tissue goes through processing with certain chemicals and is embedded into paraffin wax. A histotechnologist will cut the tissue-wax block into super thin slices and place the sections on a slide for the pathologist.

Different types of tissue can include a small biopsy from a colonoscopy, to a skin shave to remove a mole, to that gallbladder or appendix you had taken out, to segments of colon and breast tissue removed due to cancer.  A Pathologist Assistant is needed to gross the larger specimens since training includes a large amount of anatomy and the proper way to handle margins of tumors.

A Pathologist Assistant can work in a clinical laboratory, a university training pathology residents, or even assist with autopsies performing postmortem examinations.

I completed a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a 3.85 GPA.  I found full-time employment in my field after a year and was trained on the job to be a grossing assistant.  I had been grossing biopsies and small specimens for 5 years before deciding to go back to school and get my master's so I could seek certification in this field.  I will graduate from Indiana University in July 2015!

love the view from the pathology building
There is currently high demand for Pathologists' Assistants, but the field is not for everyone - ie those with weak stomachs.  I personally love this field because it is so interesting and I am able to play a vital role in patient's care by assisting the pathologist make accurate diagnoses.

So there's a quick education of my program and future career.  If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to ask!  Also, feel free to visit the Association of Pathologists' Assistants for additional information.  And if you are interested in finding out more about Indiana University's Pathologist Assistant program, click here!

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