Though burnout due to COVID-19 pandemic plays a role, the future is bright for pathology assistants
Anatomic pathology laboratories are expanding the role of Pathologist Assistants (PathAs) beyond the traditional duties. What does that mean for the future of this critical position? In an article she penned for the College of American Pathologists (CAP), certified pathologists’ assistant Heather Gaburo, MHS, PA(ASCP)cm, explains how PathA responsibilities are evolving to meet the needs of today’s surgical pathology suite and anatomic pathology service.
Gaburo, who is also Technical Director for the Panel of National Pathology Leaders (PNPL) and a member of the Board of Trustees for the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants (AAPA), published her article in the Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, titled, “Pathologist’s Assistants in Nontraditional Roles: Uncovering the Hidden Value in Your Laboratory.”
The PNPL in Woodbridge, Connecticut, funded the study and worked with various pathology laboratories to gather the information presented.
In her paper published in the Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, certified pathologists’ assistant Heather Gaburo (above), wrote “PathAs can fill a wide variety of nontraditional roles in hospital-based and private practice laboratory settings. In the current state of pathology, PathAs are underused in these roles.” (Photo copyright: American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants.)
Traditional Duties of PathAs
The job of the PathA was developed in the 1970s to fill a gap in the pathology workforce. Traditional duties for PathAs include, but are not limited to, tasks such as:
- Macroscopic examination (grossing process) and dissection of surgical specimens,
- Assisting with intraoperative frozen sections and autopsies.
However, this role is expanding. According Gaburo, the 2021 AAPA membership survey showed that PathAs duties have grown to include tasks such as:
- Administrative duties,
- Accessioning and coding,
- Supply and instrument maintenance,
- Tissue banking, and more.
Why have the duties of PathAs broadened so much? According to Gaburo, the COVID-19 pandemic had much to do with it.
COVID-19 Pandemic Leads to New Duties/Burnout for PathAs
“The pandemic increased public awareness of the clinical laboratory by highlighting essential clinical workers with frequent spotlights on COVID-19 testing and staffing shortages, as well as understaffing in the anatomic space,” Gaburo said in an exclusive interview with Dark Daily.
“COVID-19 caused delays in cancer screening and non-emergency surgery, which led to a backlog of cases and delayed cancer presentations. Some studies have shown an increase in late-stage cancer presentations, which can be more time-consuming to diagnose in pathology. Both factors are contributing to higher traditional workloads for PathAs,” she added.
The pandemic, according to Gaburo, also led to increased duties for PathAs. “The pandemic also provided PathAs with opportunities to assist in developing new protocols such as: handling surgical specimens from COVID-19 patients, enhanced safety procedures in the laboratory, and autopsies on SARS-CoV-2 patients.”
But, with this expansion of duties also comes with the threat of burnout. “I believe the pandemic contributed to the burnout of PathAs in several ways. Many labs faced staffing challenges as employees contracted COVID-19, straining the existing workforce,” she noted.
“Some personnel struggled to balance their jobs as essential workers with providing virtual schooling for their children. Workloads increased when surgical cases resumed to catch up with the patient backlog. The incoming specimens were more complex due to delays in screening and advanced disease at presentation,” Gaburo added.
Job retention is an issue also explored by Gaburo in her Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine paper. “Almost half of the laboratory professionals (including PathAs) surveyed by the ASCP addressed being underappreciated, especially compared with nursing and other allied health professionals.” She goes on to cite the risks of worker burnout, including adverse errors that could lead to liability of healthcare organizations.
Gaburo notes that burnout was an issue for PathAs before the COVID-19 pandemic “possibly due to a lack of job diversity and opportunities for growth,” she said. But the COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique opportunity for many PathAs, as well.
“The pandemic, while it brought challenges, also provided opportunities for PathAs to step into new, temporary roles early on when surgeries were limited, and clinics were closed. This job diversification may have helped develop resiliency and decrease burnout.”
PathA Shortage and Educational Opportunities
The COVID-19 pandemic required the entire healthcare industry to be flexible and expand in a short time. This, according to Gaburo, contributed to the growth of PathAs’ duties and could have helped with job retention as well.
When asked whether there was a shortage of PathAs in clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups, Gaburo said, “Though there are many open jobs for PathAs, our profession is fortunate in that we are not experiencing the same type of shortage as other laboratory professions. Instead of struggling to fill vacant positions, it seems many of the PathA openings are newly created positions. In fact, the new graduate employment rate of most, if not all, PathA programs is 100%.”
However, pandemic-related stresses and burnout have led to a shortage of anatomic pathologists, Gaburo notes. But in this she also sees new opportunities for PathAs.
“This is an area where the utilization of pathologists’ assistants has value for pathologists. PathAs, with support and mentorship, can provide assistance in many areas at a lower cost than pathologists, freeing up the pathologists to devote more time to patient care activities.”
As Gaburo concludes in her paper, “PathAs are qualified allied health professionals capable of handling a wide range of nontraditional roles in the pathology laboratory.” She goes on to note how practices can choose to mentor and support their PathAs by offering them mentorship and diverse educational opportunities.
“Over the last 15 years, the number of training programs for PathAs has more than doubled, from seven to 15. Class sizes have also increased to meet the growing demand for admission, which has become more and more competitive.
“The curricula include basic laboratory management classes, and some programs are considering incorporating ‘Business of Pathology’ courses as well. Many programs have expanded their clinical rotation sites, leading to opportunities for experienced PathAs to move into nontraditional teaching roles by becoming preceptors. However, there is still a need for more high-level administrative training opportunities,” Gaburo wrote.
Job satisfaction and retention increases quality for everyone involved. As clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups continue to support COVID-19 testing on top of traditional laboratory requirements, pathologist assistants have proven—and will continue to prove—what a valuable asset they are to clinical pathology practices.