Pathology: Tiny samples build big picture

Pathology is one area of medical science that is crucial in assisting doctors to diagnose disease precisely as well as manage and prevent a wide variety of illnesses.

Rarely seen by the public, this area of medicine is confined to laboratories where pathologists and technicians perform tests and analyses, usually from samples of the patient’s blood, urine, other body fluids and tissue specimens.

Using highly sophisticated diagnostic tools, the pathology laboratory staff will observe levels of certain chemicals or other substances in the body. They also advise on the interpretation of test results pertaining to conditions such as metabolic disorders, cancers and infectious diseases.

Clinical pathologists are doctors with special training who often direct all the special divisions of the laboratory, which may include clinical chemistry, haematology, immunology, serology and microbiology. Part of their responsibility is to examine the body’s biochemical processes, such as hormone and enzyme production. A determination to conduct further study is then made, based on the test results.

Pathology has many fields of expertise
Pathology is an extremely broad discipline that contains various fields of expertise. For instance, anatomical pathology, the study of tissues that have been surgically removed, most often in the form of biopsies; bacteriology, parasitology and virology, the study of bacteria, parasites and viruses respectively; mycology, the study of fungi; immunology, the study of the immune system; haematology, concerned with the study of blood and blood diseases; and forensic pathology, usually concerned with determining the cause of death, which has been popularised by crime TV shows over the past few decades.

Blood is one of the specimens that laboratory personnel use for analysis. The patient’s blood can be tested in several ways. Blood can be examined either in its whole state or as plasma, which is the fluid that is left after the red and white blood cells are removed.

Urine is another substance that holds many answers to a patient’s state of health. Sometimes the doctor will require something more complex than a “random urine test”, when the patient simply urinates into a container. The doctor can opt for a “clean, catch specimen”, which requires the outer genital area to be sterilised before the patient urinates. Even more complex is the “sterile urine test”, which requires a catheter, or tube, to be inserted into the urethra and pushed into the bladder to obtain the urine.

Other bodily fluids that need to be obtained through specialist skill include spinal fluid, joint fluids, abdominal fluids and pleural fluids, which are found around the lungs or in the pleural cavity, the space between the two membranes that surround the lungs.

The tests most familiar to the public are blood tests to determine cholesterol and blood-sugar levels, biopsies of organs and skin lesions by specialists to ascertain whether a tumour or skin lesion is benign or malignant, and pap smears to determine the cytological abnormalities of early cervical cancer.

A relatively new discipline of pathological expertise is molecular pathology. In this field disease is diagnosed by examining the molecules in organs, tissues and bodily fluids.


Being something of a hybrid discipline, it shares aspects of other pathology specialities such as molecular biology, biochemistry, proteomics (the study of proteins) and genetics. Molecular pathology is proving successful in the treatment of various cancers.

Even though they are hardly seen by the patient, pathologists play a critical role in the decision-making that determines patient care. In fact, as much as 70% of all decisions concerning diagnosis and treatment, hospital admission and discharge are determined on the basis of the test results obtained by pathology laboratories.

Pathology will be the topic of Bonitas House Call on March 31, at 9am on SABC2

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Sponsored Feature
Guest Author
Advertising

High Court strikes down ‘paternalistic’ lockdown regulations

The order of unconstitutionality has been suspended for two weeks

L’Oréal workers demand a shutdown of local plant, citing Covid-19...

The French cosmetics company’s Midrand plant has recorded 16 Covid-19 cases in two weeks

Protective equipment for schools in KwaZulu-Natal goes ‘missing’

Without protective equipment, schools in uMlazi, Pinetown and Zululand won’t meet the already delayed deadline for reopening
Advertising

Press Releases

Empowering his people to unleash their potential

'Being registered as an AGA(SA) means you are capable of engineering an idea and turning it into money,' says Raymond Mayekisa

What is an AGA(SA) and AT(SA) and why do they matter?

If your company has these qualified professionals it will help improve efficiencies and accelerate progress by assisting your organisation to perform better

Mining company uses rich seam of technology to gear up for Covid-19

Itec Direct technology provides instant temperature screening of staff returniing to the workplace with no human contact

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday