Changing the Perception of Pathology
Pathologists need to reach out to the general public – and the earlier, the better
I’m fortunate enough to have found a career that I completely love and feel respected in. As a department, my colleagues in oral pathology and I are very rare. Why? Firstly because oral pathology is so specialized that the services we provide make us the only one of our kind in Wales; secondly, I feel, because our extreme specialization has led to a great working relationship with other healthcare professionals. However, there is still a large pathology workforce whose situation is vastly different, and I know that not everybody in laboratory medicine feels that they are recognized in the service they provide to patients and the impact they have on patient care. The question we need to ask ourselves is, “Are we doing enough to change this?” We are relatively unknown to the public – and, in some cases, even misunderstood by other healthcare professionals – but are we to blame for this? Are we taking part in public engagement or career talks in schools to change that perception? With the concern of a shortfall in workforce in the future, I feel we need to act to engage young people in pathology and biomedical science. I’m an avid watcher of the BBC2 fly-on-the-wall documentary Hospital. On the show, “the lab” is referenced quite often, but the term “pathology” is never used. Why not? And could a small change like using the word “pathology” start the ball rolling in making others aware of how much we are involved in healthcare?
About 18 months ago, I became a STEM ambassador because I really wanted to showcase my job and make students aware of pathology as a possible career choice. I also wanted to highlight our role in patient care to the public. I’ve visited a few schools to demonstrate pathology as much as I can; with students, I’ve stained cheek cells to view in a microscope, grown bacterial cultures, and demonstrated infection control. As part of British Science Week, I spent the day at a primary school where the theme was “exploration and discovery.” I had the opportunity to teach different classes about body maps, including the circulatory system, which let me talk about the structure of blood and why it’s important to us in pathology. The students were really excited about extracting DNA from their cheek cells, which opened up a channel to talk about the role of genetics. Another visit to a primary school was about healthy lifestyles, and that allowed me to talk about hemoglobin and the importance of iron in carrying oxygen. I showed the students how iron was found in a healthy diet by chasing bran flakes around a petri dish of water with a magnet! It was a really fun way to introduce them to hematology. One child even told me that they thought science was meant to be boring, but what we were doing was really fun. I think that if you engage children at a young age, their interest in science can potentially follow them through their education.
I’ve also recently competed in an online project called I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here, which connected students with scientists. It was an incredible experience and I can’t recommend it highly enough – you don’t even need to leave the lab or office, so it’s great for those who lack time or work in remote areas.
In general, I really enjoy public engagement, showcasing and discussing what we do as clinical scientists, anatomical pathology technicians, biomedical scientists, medical lab assistants, associate practitioners, and the many other roles involved in pathology. I have organized events for Biomedical Science Day (in which we’ll place a stand in the concourse of University Hospital of Wales to raise awareness of laboratory medicine, as well as visit schools) and National Pathology Week (November 5–11), when we’ll be inviting primary schools to visit on Friday and offering drop-in educational sessions to the public on Saturday.
Not sure where to begin with public engagement? Organizations like the Royal College of Pathologists, IBMS, and STEM Learning have amazing ideas and resources online for activities. Taking part is great fun and has the potential to change lives. If each institution committed to just one science event a year, it would be a huge but achievable way to promote laboratory medicine.
Hayley Pincott is Associate Practitioner in Oral Pathology at University Dental Hospital, Cardiff, UK