Pathologists spend a lot of their time in labs, examining tissues, cells, organs and bodily fluids to diagnose diseases. While their work is integral to the care process, pathologists don't typically get to meet the patients they help. 

But Lija Joseph, M.D., believes more face-to-face interaction between pathologists and patients would be valuable. In March, Joseph kicked off a pathologist-patient consultation program for oncology patients, called Cancer Pathology 101, at Lowell (Mass.) General Hospital, where she is chief of pathology and medical director of pathology and laboratory medicine.

At most, Joseph figured, one patient per year might take advantage of these consults. To her surprise, by mid-August, 20 patients had signed up for the chance to come into the lab, scrutinize their cancer cells under microscopes and talk with a pathologist about the cancers that had invaded their bodies.

Joseph’s program is part of a growing effort by health care providers to reach out to patients and involve them more directly in understanding their illnesses and participate more in decisions about their medical care. Cancer Pathology 101 participants are required to sign HIPAA paperwork to get the ball rolling and are welcome to include a family member in their sessions.

Joseph says her free consultation program provides patients with helpful details about their cancers. “One of the patients who brought me a thank-you card said it best,” she recalls. “She said, ‘Please let me see the dragon that I’m slaying!’” The woman, a breast cancer patient, “really wanted to see what she was dealing with and to have me explain the disease to her in layman’s terms.”

Patients aren’t the only ones who benefit; Joseph says she also finds the sessions therapeutic. “There is a perception out there that pathologists only do autopsies and that pathologists don’t like to talk to patients,” Joseph says. “I personally think that pathologists are the most compassionate and caring physicians. We’ve always been invisible behind the scenes.”