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Pathologist as an Expert Witness in a Medical Malpractice Case

In preparing certain types of medical malpractice cases, the use of a good pathologist as an expert witness can help the jury to understand the complex medical issues underlying the patient's injury. However, before an attorney picks a pathologist to testify, he or she should understand the medical specialty of pathology.

Pathology, which is the study of disease, is divided into two main categories - anatomic pathology and clinical pathology. An anatomic pathologist studies disease and injury by both a gross and microscopic examination of samples such as tissue specimens, biopsies, organs, and blood smears. He or she examines specimens removed during surgery for a quick diagnosis in order to determine the course of the remainder of the surgical procedure. It is the anatomic pathologist who performs autopsies. On the other hand, clinical pathology focuses more on the medical laboratory where tests are performed, and it is a clinical pathologist who is responsible for the lab results.

Neither board certification nor even board eligibility is required to practice pathology. However, the American Board of Pathology certifies most pathologists in either anatomic or clinical pathology, or in both. Board certification in either or both categories requires years of post-graduate training beyond the medical degree. Some board certified pathologists choose to continue their education for an extra year to obtain an additional certification in a subspecialty such as neuropathology, pediatric pathology, immunopathology, or forensic pathology.

Forensic pathologists determine the cause and circumstances of death. They have received special training in wound examination, and they are generally familiar with fields related to death investigations such as criminalistics and forensic toxicology.

The "perfect" expert witness pathologist is board certified in both anatomic and clinical pathology, and he or she should be practicing his profession. He should be well respected in the medical community and a member of all relevant state and national professional societies. Finally, a testifying pathologist should be able to accurately and clearly communicate his information on the often-complex issues involved in a medical malpractice case.

Certain types of pathologists are better suited to testify in certain types of cases. For example, anatomic pathologists can testify on missed or false disease diagnoses, whereas clinical pathologists can testify on laboratory processing errors. A forensic pathologist could best testify as to the cause of an unnatural death.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.