Histopathology is the study of diseased tissue, for example, breast lumps or specimens of bowel removed because of suspected cancer, including examination under the microscope.

What type of work?

Histopathologists look at tissues and cells removed from patients in the clinic or during an operation. They use a range of scientific methods to discover if a disease is present and what course of action needs to be taken. The tissue is first examined with the naked eye to look for any visible abnormalities and to select pieces to examine in more detail. These small pieces are treated with chemicals so that very thin slices can be cut. The slices are stained to show different parts of the cells and examined under a microscope. The histopathologist tells the patient’s doctor what is wrong and often provides information about the correct treatment to give.

Histopathologists sometimes look at tissue while the patient is having an operation. The surgeon removes a small amount of tissue and waits for the histopathologist to make a diagnosis before deciding how to proceed. The patient is asleep while this is going on and knows nothing about it. Histopathologists are the people who diagnose cancer and other serious illnesses – but they also often have good news, for example discovering that a lump or mole is completely benign and nothing to worry about. Some histopathologists also carry out autopsies (post mortems) to find out why someone has died.

What skills are needed?

Histopathologists need good attention to detail for examining tissue and diagnosing disease. Many diseases look very similar, so being able to spot small differences is important. They need to be able to work under pressure and make critical decisions every day, as their interpretation of what they see under the microscope will determine what treatment the patient is given. Histopathologists must have a high level of self-motivation and be able to work both alone and as part of a team. Good communications skills are essential for discussing the relevance of microscopic findings with colleagues.

Histopathologists are at the forefront of research into many common diseases such as cancer.

Did you know? 

13 million slices of tissue are examined by histopathologists in England every year.