Pathologists are doctors whose main tool is a microscope. When they make errors in describing what they see, that can be cause for a medical malpractice investigation and lawsuit.
When a surgeon cuts out a biopsy sample – and actually when the surgeon takes out anything from just about anywhere in the body – the entire specimen is sent in a tray to the hospital’s pathology lab. There it is embedded in wax to preserve it, and samples just a few cells thick are shaved off and mounted on glass slides, just like high school biology class. The specimen is stained to highlight anatomic features. Special staining can be done to look for footprints of viruses and other invaders. A pathologist looks at these glass slides under the microscope. If the surgery was for cancer, and the goal was to take out the entire cancer, as it usually is, the pathologist reports back on whether the specimen shows “clean margins,” the cancerous cells stopping a healthy distance from the edge of the specimen. Just as important, the pathologist tries to classify the exact kind of cancer and how aggressive it looks.
What lay people don’t often know is that these opinions are fraught with possibility for disagreement and outright error—and that’s why getting a second opinion on biopsies should be routine for patients.
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