THEY are the guardian angels who work behind-the-scenes to diagnose disease and guide medical professionals in the best course of treatment for patients.
Anatomical pathologists may not share the same profile as other health specialties, but these highly specialised doctors are modern medical detectives that play a vital role in keeping the community healthy.
Dr Jacqueline Cheung is one of two new anatomical pathology trainees that have begun at the NSW Health Pathology lab at the John Hunter Hospital – the busiest public lab of its kind in the state – where they test and analyse organs, tissues and separate cells to diagnose a wide variety of diseases, but particularly cancer.
“Anatomical pathology is a lot like detective work, you get different bits of information and try to piece together a diagnosis, which will mean quite a lot to the patient,” Dr Cheung said.
“It is quite complex, and there are a lot of different, complicated processes to learn and to go through, but we have to be extremely thorough to make sure everything is as accurate as possible, so that we can help the oncologists and the surgeons, and other health professionals, work out how to proceed with treatment.
“If it is cancer, whether we should do chemotherapy or radiotherapy for the most beneficial result.”
Prior to beginning the five-year anatomical pathology training program, Dr Cheung had already completed a six-year medical degree, as well as three years of clinical hospital work.
She was one of 20 trainees in NSW to be accepted into the highly competitive program. Dr Cheung said every hour of every day offered a new learning opportunity.
From hour to hour she could analyse an ovary, an appendix, some breast tissue, skin cells, a bowel and some tonsils.
“You never quite know what is going to come through the door,” Dr Cheung said. “That’s what you want, it’s the best way to learn.”
A NSW Health Pathology spokesperson said about 34,000 samples of patient tissues and organs were processed by the scientists and clinicians in the Newcastle anatomical pathology lab in 2016, making it the state’s busiest public lab of its kind.
It also analyses samples for patients in Taree, on the north coast, and north west NSW.
“At the end of the day, we just want what is best for the patient, and in order to learn all of the different elements to this specialty, five years is actually not that long at all,” Dr Cheung said.
“We’re the hidden people. People don’t usually see us.
“But we talk to oncologists, radiologists, clinicians and lab scientists and doctors to get the answers.”