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Pathologists’ Assistant Program, First in State, Now a Reality

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Work on preparing the Holdredge Bearwood Center is nearly complete and the first class is now in place at the new School of Clinical Laboratory Sciences in the Anderson University College of Health Professions.

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The Pathologists’ Assistant program in the Anderson University College of Health Professions, the first such program in the state and one of few in North America, is now a reality.

The Master of Medical Science in Pathologists’ Assistant (MMSPA) degree is only the sixteenth such program in North America.

The Anderson University College of Health Professions sought to establish a pathologists’ assistant program following a request from a local clinical pathologist at a regional hospital stating that an urgent need exists for pathologists’ assistants.

Pathologists’ assistants work in the anatomic pathology laboratory of hospitals—the laboratory preparation of tissue samples, including comprehensive macroscopic examination of surgical tissues and postmortem examinations for final diagnosis by a pathologist. Additional work settings are pathology and dermatological labs and medical examiner’s offices.

According to Derek Nelson, who is the program’s director and the chair of the new School of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, becoming a pathologists’ assistant can be an attractive option for someone who has a desire to enter healthcare, without the extra expense and years of required education of other medical professions.

“Unfortunately with inflation and just the cost of education, it’s such a huge burden to bear, and most medical students are coming out with half a million dollars in student loan debt; then you’ve got to think about residencies as well,” Nelson said. “You’re working full time, but you’re not making what you would make as a physician. So you have to kind of calculate that into what you’re losing when it comes to your yearly salary.”

While pathologists’ assistants’ income isn’t as high as that of many physicians, Nelson says that the two-year accelerated program can lead to a job with a six figure salary. He adds that typical hours for pathologists’ assistants allow for a better work-life balance.

Aubrey Chinners loved sports and thought that, aside from playing, he could see himself in a healthcare role supporting athletics, like maybe an orthopedic surgeon. Following a year of medical school, he had a change of heart, but working alongside a pathologists’ assistant at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), he started considering furthering his career in that setting. A doctor he worked with at MUSC knew about the new program Anderson University was developing.

“When she heard about that program she let me know, and that’s why I was heavily considering this route, because before Anderson there were very few programs in the country,” Chinners said. “It’s kind of God’s plan in a way.”

Coming from a Criminal Justice background, Elizabeth Velandia entered the program after six years working as a death investigation specialist at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner’s office. When she was going through school, she had never heard of pathologists’ assistants. One of her colleagues mentioned that career possibility. After she graduates, Velandia is open to opportunities outside of law enforcement—possibly in a surgical technician department of a hospital.

“I just want to be open because I feel like I may enjoy the surgical path more than forensics, Velandia said. “It’s nice being here in a program, you kind of have that flexibility that you know you all you can do surgical pathology, and then you can do forensic as well. But right now I’m open to just being able to complete this program and become a PA (pathologists’ assistant).”

Nelson feels that the program has gotten off to a great start. Work on preparing the Holdredge Bearwood Center, located off campus, is nearly complete and on campus there are facilities such as a cadaver lab to give Pathologists’ Assistant students what they need to be prepared for jobs in healthcare. Nelson points out that there are advantages to not being directly linked to a hospital, including competition with residents and physicians for tissue samples to study. He added that equipment such as the Anatomage table provides a digital platform for examining the tissue of a virtual cadaver. Many pathologists’ assistant programs do not have an Anatomage table, Nelson noted.

“The students can also access (the Anatomage) from home as well, so they can practice,” Nelson said. “We can create exams, quizzes, and they can quiz themselves, too. So I think that’s one of the great tools.”

“All of the faculty and staff, we’re just focused on just the PA program itself,” Nelson said. “We’re not trying to run a residency program and do a bunch of other things, we are just here for them. So I think that’s a really big positive for them as well.”

Chinners said, “I think overall it’s been a great experience, and I’ve been happy to be a part of that first group and maybe make things better for the groups to come after.”

“It’s an accelerated program… I knew it was going to be hard and difficult, and you’re getting a lot of material crammed into such a short amount of time,” Velandia said. “If we can get more people into this program, I think it would just be great.”

The Anderson University College of Health Professions is where cutting-edge science and biblical compassion come together to meet the healthcare needs of the twenty-first century. Details about its programs can be found online.

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