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Pathology is the study of disease, its causes and progression. Pathologists look for irregularities within samples, but usually these tests are performed to ensure that everything is fine. Through preventive screenings, diagnostic tests can aid in detection of potentially terminal conditions at a nascent stage.

Pathology also has a major role to play in research, such as discovering treatments for cancer and hereditary conditions, developing vaccines against infectious diseases, or confirming that blood transfusions are safe. Pathology is the cornerstone of most areas of healthcare - providing insights into how to manage patients' conditions - either by confirming a diagnosis, managing medication or monitoring the progression of a condition.

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Types of Pathology Labs

Reference Labs

Reference labs are usually private, commercial facilities that do both high volume and specialty (high complexity and/or rare) laboratory testing. Most of these tests are referred from physician’s offices, hospital facilities and other patient care facilities such as nursing homes. Reference labs, typically located at a site other than the healthcare facilities, are often used for specialized tests.

Public Health Labs

Public health laboratories are typically run by state and local health departments to diagnosis and protect the public from health threats such as outbreaks of infectious disease. These labs perform tests to monitor the prevalence of certain diseases in the community which are a public health concern, such as outbreaks of foodborne or waterborne illnesses or detection of unique infectious agents.

Hospital Labs

Almost all hospitals contain a laboratory to support the clinical services offered at the hospital. The specific pathology services would include both anatomic (surgical pathology, cytopathology, autopsy) and clinical (laboratory medicine) pathology at most hospitals. Most, if not all, inpatient and many outpatients seen by hospital-affiliated physicians require tests performed by hospital labs.

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Anatomical Pathology

Anatomical pathology is the study of anatomical features, such as tissue removed from the body, or even an entire body in the case of an autopsy, to diagnose and increase knowledge of disease. Anatomical pathology can include looking at cells under a microscope, but it also involves looking at organs in general (e.g. a ruptured spleen). It also includes investigation of the chemical properties of cells, and their immunological markers. There are several broad subcategories of anatomical pathology:

  • Surgical pathology is the examination of tissues removed during surgery. A common example is the examination of a small piece of tumor tissue to determine whether the tumor is malignant (cancerous) or benign and make a diagnosis. This procedure is called a biopsy.
  • Histopathology is the examination of cells under a microscope that have been stained with dye to make them visible or easier to see. Often, antibodies are used to label different parts of the cells with different colors of dye or fluorescence. After the microscope became widespread in pathology, many different methods of preserving and dyeing tissue were developed.
  • Cytopathology is the study of small groups of cells shed in bodily fluids or obtained through scraping, such as those taken during a cervical Pap smear. A Pap smear detects cervical cancer and some types of infections. The cells are taken by swabbing the cervix, and are then processed and examined under a microscope to check for abnormalities.

Clinical Pathology

Clinical pathology diagnoses disease through laboratory analysis of bodily fluids and tissues. For example, the chemical components of blood may be analyzed, along with analyzing cells and identifying any microorganisms such as bacteria that are present in a sample. Sometimes, the field of clinical pathology is also referred to as the field of laboratory medicine. Major types include the following:

  • Chemical pathology or clinical chemistry, involves the chemical analysis of bodily fluids, through testing and microscopy. Commonly, chemical pathology involves the study of blood and its immune components like white blood cells.
  • Hematology is also related to the study of blood, but it has more to do with identifying blood diseases specifically than chemical pathology does. Hematologists also study the lymph system and bone marrow, which are other parts of the hematopoietic system.
  • Immunology, or immunopathology, is the study of immune system disorders. It deals with immune responses to foreign molecules, allergies, immunodeficiencies, and organ transplant rejection.

Molecular Pathology

Molecular pathology is the study of abnormalities of tissues and cells at the molecular level. It is a broad category that is used to refer to the study of disease of any organ or tissue in the body by examining what molecules are present in cells. It can combine aspects of both anatomical and clinical pathology. Some techniques that can be used in molecular pathology include polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify DNA, fluorescence labeling, karyotype imaging of chromosomes, and DNA microarrays (small samples of DNA placed onto biochips).