Pathology F.A.Q.


What are Pathology tests used for?

Screening for disease
The aim of screening is to pick up a disease in the early stages so it can be treated or prevented before the person is even aware they have it, or before it develops into something more serious. Screening is used for various reasons. It can help with the early detection of conditions such as cancer, or help determine the chances of carrying inherited or genetic diseases.

Diagnosing a condition
Diagnosing an illness isn't always straightforward. Some conditions have similar symptoms and pathology tests to help with the diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Giving a prognosis of an illness
For serious conditions like cancer, it's important to determine what stage the cancer has reached to give an indication of severity, treatment choices and, in cases of a terminal disease, the most appropriate palliative care.

Pathology tests can help your doctor monitor the progression of a condition and determine whether it's getting better or worse.

What happens to my sample?

When a sample is taken at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, it is passed to our Pathology Specimen transport which takes it to the appropriate laboratory. Your sample will then be processed by the laboratory.  

Sometimes samples have to be sent to more than one speciality laboratory. How the sample is stored depends on the type – some samples need to be kept frozen at all times, some need to be delivered within the hour or in special containers if there is a risk of infection, while others can be sent by post. You can always check with your doctor to find out more about how your sample reaches a pathology laboratory.

As soon as your specimen arrives in pathology, it is assigned a pathology number so laboratory staff can keep track of it. This also allows your tests to remain anonymous.

How your sample is handled by pathologists and scientists depends on the type of tests being done and on the sample.

How long does it take to get my results?

This depends on the type of test that needs to be done. More than 90% of samples arriving at biochemistry and haematology labs will be reported on the same day. There is a very high use of automation and robotics within these specialities.

Other samples require more time and resources, such as when tissue needs to be examined under the microscope. This can take several days, depending on the tests that need to be done, the availability of scientist and pathologist staff, and the workload of the histopathology department. Similarly, if a sample needs to be cultured (growing bacteria in petri dishes), a result cannot be reported until the culture has had time to grow and be identified.

Other reasons why you may have to wait longer for your results include:

  • the sheer complexity of the test requires considerable time
  • samples for that type of test are received less frequently and are stored so they can be analysed in a batch for both quality and economic reasons
  • the test needs to be sent on to a highly specialised laboratory

How do I know my lab has given the right answers

We make considerable efforts to ensure our results are correct. Like other industries, we undertake quality control measures and compare our results both internally and with other laboratories undertaking the same type of test.

This latter process is called external quality assurance, or EQA. Most EQA is organised on a national basis, so laboratories can compare their results with others – up to about 200 for some tests – and with laboratories using the same test methods and equipment. If a laboratory performs poorly, the EQA process will include contacting the laboratory, identifying the problem, and helping them overcome any issues. If this fails to generate improvements, the organiser will report the matter to the Royal College of Pathologists for them to take action.

How are pathology labs regulated?

The system of Clinical Pathology Accreditation is run by the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS) and inspects laboratories on a regular basis. This is a very thorough review of the processes in each pathology discipline undertaken by that laboratory, and is done to international standards (ISO 15189 Medical Laboratories). This approach applies to all laboratories, whether they are part of the NHS or private.