Pathology reports: Frequently asked questions

February 8, 2023

In this section, our team of pathologists provide answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about pathology and pathology reports. Have a question? Contact us.

What is a pathology report?

A pathology report is a medical document describing the examination of tissue by a pathologist. A pathologist is a specialist medical doctor who works closely with the other doctors in your healthcare team.

Is a pathologist a medical doctor?

Yes. A pathologist is a medical doctor with additional subspecialty training in the area of pathology. Types of pathologists include anatomical pathologists, hematopathologists, neuropathologists, and forensic pathologists. To become a pathologist a person must complete medical school followed by residency training. Most pathologists also complete an additional 1 to 2 years of fellowship training after residency.

Can I get a copy of my pathology report?

Yes, you can get a copy of your pathology report. Most hospitals now provide patients access to their pathology reports and other medical records through an online patient portal. If the hospital or laboratory that prepared your pathology report does not have an online patient portal, you can always request to receive a copy of your report from the hospital, laboratory, or your doctor.

Are there different types of pathology reports?

Yes, there is more than one type of pathology report and the type of pathology report prepared depends on the type of tissue sent for examination and the way the tissue was removed. Common types of pathology reports include surgical pathology, hematopathology, neuropathology, cytopathology, autopsy pathology, and forensic pathology.

A surgical pathology report is used for most types of tissues including small biopsies, larger excisions and resections, and whole organ examinations. A hematopathology report is used to describe the examination of blood, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. A neuropathology report is used to describe the examination of tissue from the nervous system including the brain and spinal cord. In many hospitals, a neuropathology report is also used to describe the examination of muscle samples. A cytopathology report is used to describe the examination of very small tissue samples removed during either a fine-needle aspiration or a pap smear. Finally, autopsy and forensic pathology reports are used to describe the post-mortem examination of a body after a person has died. Whether an autopsy or forensic pathology report is prepared depends on the medical and legal circumstances surrounding the death.

What information is included in a pathology report?

All pathology reports include sections for patient information, specimen source, clinical history, and diagnosis. Surgical pathology reports (those that describe the examination of larger tissue samples such as biopsies, excisions, and resections) will typically also include sections for microscopic and gross descriptions and comments by the pathologist. Cancer reports may also include a section called the synoptic report which includes important information such as the type of cancer, tumour size, margin status, and pathologic stage. Some reports will also include a section called the intraoperative consultation or frozen section if a pathologist examined tissue at the time of the surgical procedure.

How long does it take to get a pathology result?

It can take anywhere from 1 day to several weeks to get a pathology result and the amount of time depends on many factors including the type of tissue, the size of the tissue sample, and the need to perform additional tests. Before any type of tissue can be examined by a pathologist, it first needs to be placed on a glass slide and stained so that it will be visible under the microscope. For small tissue samples such as those removed in a fine-needle aspiration or biopsy procedure, this can be completed within 1 to 2 days. For larger tissues, a visual or gross examination must first be performed to select areas of tissue to examine more closely under the microscope. This process can take an additional 3 to 4 days. Once the pathologist receives the glass slides, the microscope examination can usually be completed in 1 day. However, pathologists often order additional tests such as immunohistochemistry and special stains which need to be examined before completing the case. These additional tests can take 1 to 5 days to complete.

Can a pathology report be wrong?

Although it is rare, a pathology report like any other type of medical test can be wrong. However, studies have shown that the error rate in pathology is very low (less than 2%) so most reports will be correct.

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