Surgeons and pathologists are both physicians with very different ways of helping people who are ill or injured. Surgeons make a diagnosis based on physical examination of their patient, laboratory tests and diagnostic studies. The pathologist performs clinical laboratory tests to diagnose disease on both living and non-living patients. Although surgeons may see a patient a number of times and perform more than one surgery on an individual, patients rarely see the pathologist, who works behind the scene.
Both surgeons and pathologists attend undergraduate school and medical school, where they study such subjects as human anatomy, biology, disease processes and microbiology. Their paths begin to diverge in the latter part of medical school and residency. The surgeon starts to perform operations while the pathologist begins to learn more about laboratory testing and microscopic examination of tissues, cells and body fluids. After residency, either may go on to a fellowship for further training in his specialty.
Surgeons help patients heal by removing diseased tissue or by repairing structural problems in the body. Surgeons may specialize in fields such as orthopedics, a specialty that deals with the skeleton, muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints. Other surgeons may work on blood vessels or the heart. General surgeons are more likely to perform procedures, such as removing a gall bladder, taking out an appendix or repairing a hernia, while urologists repair problems with the kidneys and urinary tract.
Surgeons and pathologists often work closely together to plan surgical care. During surgery, the surgeon may cut out some tissue and have the pathologist perform a frozen section, in which a piece of tissue is frozen, thinly sliced and examined while the patient is still on the operating table. The pathologist’s report can determine whether more extensive surgery is needed. Sometimes, the pathologist determines that the cancer is of a type best treated with radiation or chemotherapy and the surgery plan will be revised based on the pathology findings.
Pathologists are expert diagnosticians. They examine slides of tissue or cells under a microscope to determine if a patient has cancer or a blood disorder, such as leukemia. Pathologists serve both dead and living patients. The post mortem, or autopsy, is similar to a surgical procedure, but it is performed on a patient who has died. The pathologist examines the internal organs and takes tissue samples for further examination. An autopsy can determine the exact cause of death, and if the pathologist is also acting as a medical examiner, her findings may be used in court for homicide cases.
Pathologists may also specialize in non-surgical areas, such as blood banking -- also called transfusion medicine -- or cytopathology, the study and diagnosis of disease based on cellular examination. Other pathologists specialize in diseases of the skin or nerves – dermatopathology and neuropathology. Pathologists may specialize in forensic medicine, the intersection between medicine and the law, or in hematology, which is the study of blood and bone marrow diseases.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has two categories that include surgeons. One is listed as surgeons, with an annual average salary of $231,550 in 2011. The other combines physicians and surgeons, with an annual average salary of $184,650. Pathologists are not listed by the BLS. However, the Association of American Medical Colleges reports that the average salary for pathologists in 2010 was $239,000 to $331,842. The AAMC reports that surgeons earned $284,642 to $383,333 in 2010.
2016 Salary Information for Physicians and Surgeons
Physicians and surgeons earned a median annual salary of $204,950 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, physicians and surgeons earned a 25th percentile salary of $131,980, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $261,170, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 713,800 people were employed in the U.S. as physicians and surgeons.
- Association of American Medical Colleges: Specialty Information Pathology
- Association of American Medical Colleges: Specialty Information General Surgery
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Physicians and Surgeons
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: May 2011 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates United States
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Physicians and Surgeons
- Career Trend: Physicians and Surgeons
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.