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New Pathologists’ Assistant Program Prepares More Students to Make an Impact

Students in the growing Pathologists’ Assistant Program are training to fill the need for qualified and formally educated pathologists’ assistants in Tennessee and beyond.

In its second year, the College of Health Professions’ newest program is continuing to grow.

The first class in the Pathologists’ Assistant (PathA) Program started in January 2023, consisting of seven students who are now in clinical rotations and on track to graduate in December. The program expanded this January with 10 new students in its second cohort.

“We are really pleased with how our students are doing,” Program Director Michael Weitzeil said. “Our students are working hard, passing their exams, learning the psychomotor skills, and they continue to progress without any concerns. We are very pleased.”

Interest continues to spread as dozens of people applied for the 12 spots in the next class starting in January. The high demand can largely be attributed to the program’s rarity. There are currently only 14 other operational training programs for PathAs in the United States, none of which are in Tennessee or the Mid-South.

The program, which offers a Master’s of Health Science (MHS) in Pathologists’ Assistant degree, aims to train highly skilled, entry-level pathologists’ assistants who are prepared to assume positions in the gross room and autopsy suite, including laboratory management, research, and education. The college began developing the program in 2018 and through Weitzeil’s diligent work received final approval from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) in July 2022. The program’s faculty is made up of Weitzeil along with Clinical Coordinator Samantha Etters and Education Coordinator Kathleen Reed.

Weitzeil’s efforts are far from over as he leads the program through the process of applying for accreditation from the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS). The initial application was approved in May of last year, and a self-study explaining how the program meets each of the NAACLS standards is due this September. Once that is submitted, the program will be given Serious Applicant status, which grants students the same opportunities as fully accredited programs.

“Submission of the initial self-study report is an important milestone in the development of a NAACLS-accredited program, for the program and the students. Submitting the report means our students will be eligible to sit for their American Society of Clinical Pathology Board of Certification exam. Passing this exam will give our students the certification they need to get their jobs.” Weitzeil said.

After a site visit by NAACLS representatives next spring, final accreditation is expected to be awarded in the fall of next year. Accreditation serves as public recognition that the program meets established education standards. Weitzeil said this recognition has the potential to double the number of applicants the program receives.

Clinical Coordinator Samantha Etters helps students learn important lab skills during a class.

According to Weitzeil, many factors draw people to the PathA profession. In addition to having competitive salaries, job stability, and high job satisfaction, pathologists’ assistants play a crucial role by assisting pathologists in diagnosing diseases and determining treatment plans. While Weitzeil admits the clinical work is not for everyone, he said pathologists’ assistants make meaningful contributions to the health care system, which can be deeply fulfilling.

“Most people don’t have get the opportunity to see the clinical work that happens behind the scenes in the hospital laboratory, especially the anatomic laboratory,” he said. “The work of a certified PathA includes the hands-on dissection of human tissue once it has been removed by the surgeon. We look for cancer (and other diseases), visualize how big it is, identify the anatomic structures invaded, and aid in determining if the cancer was fully removed from the patient. We are the eyes and hands of the pathologist for the gross evaluation of the tissue. Not everyone is interested in doing this work, but those of us who do it tend to love it. We work behind the scenes, under the direction of a pathologist, and contribute in a meaningful way to the diagnosis and treatment of the patient.”

Weitzeil is proud of the program he is building and hopes to see continued growth in the years to come. He encourages anyone interested in the medical field to consider becoming a PathA, saying it combines aspects of many different medical practices into a job that is unique and exciting. Additionally, he looks forward to seeing the impact each PathA student will have as they complete their education and begin their career.

“They’re getting an excellent education here at UT Health Science Center,” he said. “Our students will enter the workforce ready to provide high-quality anatomic pathology patient care here in Tennessee, in the Mid-South, and all over the country. I think that’s meaningful. To train new PathAs in an already small field keeps me motivated to keep putting in the time and effort. It is a lot of work, but I know that the outcome is greater than myself.”

This story was initially published in the Spring 2024 College of Health Professions Magazine.