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Frequently Asked Questions

General Pathology Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are Pathology tests used for?

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.

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.

What happens to my sample?

When a sample is taken within County Durham and Darlington, 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.

As soon as your specimen arrives in pathology, it is assigned a pathology number so laboratory staff can keep track of it.

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. 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.

Is pathology a lab test?

Pathology is a consultative service provided to you and your doctor - it is not simply a laboratory test. The tests a pathologist uses are his or her tools, but ultimately the decision regarding a particular diagnosis is based on the pathologist's expertise and training in the interpretation of your biopsy or blood sample


What happens after I get my test results?

Your doctor will use the information from our analysis, along with the results of other tests you may have had, to choose the most appropriate treatment for you.


How are pathology labs regulated?

The system of Clinical Pathology Accreditation is run by the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS) and inspects laboratories on an annual 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.


What is a pathologist?

A pathologist is a physician who has completed residency training in anatomic and/or clinical pathology. Pathology is the identification of diseases and disorders using a microscope and other instrumentation to perform tests on tissue and blood samples.


What does a pathologist do?

A pathologist uses a microscope and often other tests to examine tissue biopsies and blood samples. The pathologist then combines clinical information (observations your doctor has made about your signs and symptoms) with microscopic observations of your biopsy and tests performed on your blood sample to make a diagnosis.

What is a biopsy?

A biopsy is a sample of tissue. For certain suspected diseases and conditions, doctors will remove a small sample of tissue for analysis by a pathologist. This tissue is typically treated using special stains and/or other chemicals so it can be examined under a microscope and/or using molecular and other tests to learn more about the biology of the tissue. Biopsies are the single most important way to diagnose certain diseases, such as cancer.


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