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The Pathologists’ Assistant Profession: a Brief History


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job-seekers-2Pathologists’ assistants, PAs, recognize the vital role they play in U.S. healthcare services. As skilled, trained, and certified medical professionals, PAs are an integral part of the patient diagnosis by providing preliminary diagnoses and performing essential pathology duties in a fast-paced, high demand lab environment. Pathology labs across the country rely on pathologists’ assistants to keep laboratories operating accurately and efficiently, in any job economy. 


Pathologists’ Assistants and Physician Assistants Share Common History

While pathologists’ assistants understand the value of the services they provide, many don’t realize that the PA profession has a relatively short history, with similar roots to the other medical PAs: physician assistants. In the mid-1960s, the U.S. healthcare system found itself navigating through a primary care physicians shortage. To combat a potentially significant provider gap, Eugene A. Stead, Jr., an M.D. at Duke University, developed the physician assistant's initial concept, putting together the first class of PAs in 1965. Dr. Stead’s newly developed physician assistant curriculum took off, and the profession quickly gained the approval of the American Medical Association. The AMA assumed ownership of various credentialing components, including certification and licensing of practitioners, as well as designating external accreditation training programs

Pathologists’ Assistants Established Their Own Professional Organization

The late 1960s brought with it another medical professional shortage, this time impacting pathologists. Once again, innovative healthcare professionals began to brainstorm effective solutions within the vertical. Thomas D. Kinney, also an MD at Duke University, used the recently established physician assistant model as a reference for developing a pathology grossing position that could help meet lab needs and protect facility output from lower-than-usual pathologist numbers. 

Dr. Kinney created the very first pathologists’ assistants training program in 1969. This pilot program launched at the Veterans Administration Medical Center (VAMC) in Durham, North Carolina. Additional PA baccalaureate degree programs were offered at VAMCs in Birmingham, Alabama, and West Haven, Connecticut, giving rise to a new pathology lab profession.

The newly graduated pathologists’ assistants received critical training relevant to pathology lab needs, standards, and requirements. Unfortunately, unlike their physician assistant counterpart that was embraced with open arms by the medical community, pathologists’ assistants were not immediately recognized or accepted by the vast majority of pathologists, particularly when considering contributions in surgical pathology grossing facilities. 

Pathologists’ Assistants Solve Credentialing and Training Issues

It’s no secret that today’s successful pathologists’ assistants are dauntless, resilient, and resourceful — and our first generation of practitioners proved no exception. After realizing that the collective pathology community was uninterested in developing credentialing and training standards, pathologists’ assistants sprang into action, doing what they do best: use their own motivation and sense of urgency to solve problems. 

In 1972, a group of accredited pathologists’ assistants banded together to form their own professional association, the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants, AAPA. In fact, one of the AAPA founders is a Nicklas Medical Staffing employee. For almost 50 years, the AAPA has been hard at work on behalf of the pathology profession. In 1995, the AAPA successfully established a training program accreditation with the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences. In 2004, the group also forged a board certification process with the American Society of Clinical Pathology, effectively blazing a training and accreditation trail for future generations of pathologists’ assistants. 

Today, there are just over 2,500 certified pathologists’ assistants in North America and the number is predicted to rise in future years. A heightened urgency to keep healthcare costs low, potential pathologist shortages, and an increase in grossing demand are just some of the factors that contribute to the consistent need for pathologists’ assistants at facilities across the country. 

Contact Nicklas Medical Staffing Today

Nicklas Medical Staffing places pathologists’ assistants and histotechs on a temporary and permanent basis at pathology and histology labs across the U.S. Contact us today to tell us about your job search needs. Download our Travel Pathologists’ Assistant & Histotech Salary Calculator to determine how much you can earn at your next lab placement. 

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