The Behind the Scenes Doctors Who Could Save Your Life in 2013

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Dr. Falkowski offers tips to understand the key role Pathologists play in diagnosing disease.

Pathologists have a vital role in the medical care of a patient because they are the doctors who provide the patient’s physician with a diagnosis.

February, 2013 – Chances are that most patients will never be examined by or even meet a pathologist, a medical doctor who diagnoses diseases (such as cancer and autoimmune diseases like lupus) by analyzing cells and tissue under a microscope. Although they do not have direct contact with patients, “pathologists have a vital role in the medical care of a patient because they are the doctors who provide the patient’s physician with a diagnosis,” says Olga Falkowski, M.D., a board-certified pathologist who serves as the Medical Director and Director of Molecular Genetics at Acupath Laboratories, Inc., a national medical laboratory based in Plainview, N.Y.

Dr. Falkowski notes that the doctor you never meet might be the one that saves your life in 2013. Below are four things patients need to know about the role a pathologist plays in their medical care:

1) Pathologists are essential players in the health care team. When a medical problem arises, a primary care doctor partners with a network of experts such as oncologists, radiologists and surgeons. Most people aren’t aware that pathologists play a crucial role in patient care. “Pathologists are the key players on the medical team because their expertise helps ensure an accurate diagnosis of all types of diseases, including many types of cancer,” explains Dr. Falkowski. According to the American Society for Clinical Pathology, laboratory services account for 5% of a hospital’s budget, but they leverage 60-70% of all critical decision-making processes such as admittance, discharge and medicine.

2) There’s more to pathology than classifying tissue as benign or cancerous. After an initial test indicates that an area of tissue in the body isn’t normal, a doctor may want to biopsy a sample of tissue from the area to examine it more closely. The specimen is examined by a pathologist, who later sends the patient’s doctor a detailed report indicating what type of cancer, if any, is present. More detailed information is also provided to the patient’s doctor, such as the size, type, grade and cancer stage (how far it has spread). This diagnosis is the basis for future treatments and determining a patient’s prognosis. “An accurate, reliable laboratory report from a pathologist is the first step in receiving the best treatment,” says Dr. Falkowski.

3) All pathology laboratories are not the same. Modern medicine has become highly specialized in the past few decades, with primary care doctors referring patients to an array of highly trained physicians. The same trend is happening in the pathology field; doctors’ offices across the country send specimens to specialty labs whose physicians have completed advanced training in subspecialties of pathology. In a 2011 survey conducted by the American Society of Clinical Pathology, nearly 60% of pathology residents (pathologists in training) said they planned to complete advanced sub-specialty training such as dermatopathology, hematopathology, uropathology and gastrointestinal pathology.

“The benefits of a specialized lab such as Acupath over a lab staffed by generalists who analyze many different types of specimens are enormous,” explains Dr. Falkowski. “A specialized diagnostic lab can deliver the most accurate results because the physician issuing the diagnostic report is trained to look at samples exclusively in that one area of pathology, and they’re more likely to pinpoint and diagnose abnormalities.”

4) Cutting edge pathology testing can help detect and classify diseases in their earliest stages. For example, when it comes to breast cancer diagnosis, screening mammograms and MRIs are the buzzwords among patients. But lesser known diagnostic tools available at pathology labs can provide referring physicians with more information about a tumor. For example, Acupath Labs offers genetic HER-2/neu FISH testing, a sophisticated laboratory test that is useful in helping doctors to better determine treatment options for patients by giving doctors the chance to look at each tumor cell individually. According to the College of American Pathologists, when breast cancer is diagnosed in its earliest stages, the five year survival rate is close to 100%. Likewise, Acupath is one of few labs in the United States to offer AcuProbe™ FISH for Melanoma, a groundbreaking new test which enables a more objective, accurate method of establishing a diagnosis of malignant melanoma.

According to Dr. Falkowski, the more doctors know, the more likely they will be able to effectively diagnose and treat patients and likely improve survival rates. A state of the art, specialized pathology lab, whose pathologists have undergone subspecialty training, can enhance the quality of medical care a patient receives, and even save lives.

Olga Falkowski, M.D. is board-certified in anatomic and clinical pathology by the American Board of Pathology, and serves as the Medical Director and Director of Genetics at Acupath Laboratories, Inc.

Acupath Laboratories, Inc. is a Plainview, New York, specialty medical lab engaged in cutting-edge diagnostics.

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Melissa Chefec
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