Meet Michigan Medicine: Department of Pathology
Pathology — it’s a simple word with a broad definition: “the study of the essential nature of diseases.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the faculty and staff who make up the Michigan Medicine Department of Pathology are spread out across the academic medical center — carrying out wide-ranging lab and clinical work in dozens of specialties.
“We’re so much more than autopsies — which is what most people think of when they think of pathology,” said Charles Parkos, M.D., Ph.D., the Carl V. Weller Professor and chair of the Department of Pathology. “From drawing blood to reading slides and making diagnoses, the breadth of our work touches almost every patient who comes to Michigan Medicine.”
Finding the answers
The Department of Pathology consists of more than 1,200 team members, 174 of whom serve as faculty in the U-M Medical School. The work can be divided into two broad but distinct types, termed “clinical pathology” and “anatomical pathology.”
“Clinical pathology is often called laboratory medicine,” Parkos said. “This work involves testing non-tissue samples drawn from patients, such as blood, urine or stool.”
For instance, team members draw blood in the clinic, analyze it in the lab or oversee the blood bank. The blood bank is where plasma and blood products are prepared and stored for use during surgeries and other procedures.
Anatomical pathology, on the other hand, involves testing a patient’s cells or tissues, often following such procedures as a pap smear or biopsy. Forensic pathologists — doctors who carry out autopsies — also fit within this category.
Jeffrey Myers, M.D., the department’s vice chair for clinical affairs, is an anatomical pathologist. “I study tissue and look at slides under the microscope in order to make a proper diagnosis,” said Myers, who specializes in lung cancer. “In addition to that work, I also carry out tests to identify the type of therapy that may be most effective for each individual patient.”
While pathologists never make the final decision on treatment plans, they identify disease and make diagnoses from patient samples that helps guide patient care by other physicians.
“We work hand-in-hand with clinicians,” Myers said. “When he or she treats a patient, they depend on our test results and diagnostic interpretations to find out what the problem is and how best to treat it. That’s part of why I love our work so much — we find the answers that help patients heal.”
A direct approach
While communicating with doctors is an essential skill for pathologists, the department has put a renewed emphasis on patient- and family-centered care — encouraging team members in all fields to communicate directly with those they serve.
“Our forensic pathologists already have extensive training in how to effectively and compassionately communicate with families following an autopsy,” Parkos said. “That helps bring closure to a difficult situation. But now we train all of our other team members to sit down with patients and talk over their findings. If a doctor shows a patient what cancer cells look like, or why they have made a certain diagnosis, the patient will gain confidence that suggested treatments will be effective.”
The team also aims to enhance the patient experience by improving turnaround time for test results.
“It’s important for patients and families to get answers as soon as possible, as long as we aren’t sacrificing accuracy,” Parkos said. “No matter what, we work to put patients first.”
Looking to the future
While the department processes more than 20,000 requests per day in the lab, they never lose sight of the academic and research missions at Michigan Medicine.
The department hosts 24 subspecialty training fellowships that offer intensive training in a wide array of areas ranging from gastrointestinal surgical pathology to blood banking to forensic pathology to informatics, which deals with efficiently acquiring and communicating immense amounts of patient data generated in the department. In addition, many of the department’s faculty members are physician-scientists who spend at least 50 percent of their time carrying out cutting-edge disease-related research.
“We have researchers studying many types of cancer, immunology, aspects of aging, neurodegenerative diseases and so much more,” Parkos said. “We know that pathology research can make an enormous impact on the future of medicine, including personalized medicine, and we are major participants in the training of the next generation of biomedical scientists.”
Next year, the department plans to consolidate much of its workforce into a renovated space at the North Campus Research Complex.
“We will go from having faculty and staff in 15 different locations across the medical center to fewer than five, though we will keep team members in close proximity to high-acuity and high-usage areas such as the emergency department,” Parkos said. “That will improve our efficiency and make it easier for us to carry out our work.”
As they move offsite, Myers said communication and collaboration with clinicians across Michigan Medicine will remain as strong as ever.
“You can’t be a world-class pathologist without a world-class organization around you,” Myers said. “Every Michigan Medicine team member does their job so well that it makes our work as easy as possible. That’s what makes this a special place to work.”
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