Pathologists' Assistant PA (ASCP) Certification

Due to rising health care costs and a national physician shortage, there is an increased demand for professionals who can provide services under supervision. These so-called physician extenders can provide many of the same services physicians can without having to complete the same level of education and are often significantly cheaper. One place where physician extenders are critical is in the pathology lab.

Pathologists’ assistants work in morgues, laboratories, and hospitals under the direct supervision of a pathologist. They perform gross (initial) examinations, complete autopsies, collect tissue and fluid samples, photograph specimens, and participate in research. The function they cannot perform is to make a formal diagnosis, although they can make recommendations and write reports to aid pathologists in their determination.

Certification as a pathologists’ assistant is voluntary, although highly recommended. Many employers require certification as it demonstrates a high level of competency in the field. Certification also signals to employers that the candidate has the necessary skills to perform the job. Even if certification is not required for employment, it can help secure higher wages or improve opportunities for advancement. The primary certification pathologists’ assistants earn through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP).

As long as a candidate has completed the required education, earning an ASCP certification as a pathologists’ assistant is relatively straightforward. Continue reading to learn how to obtain this certification, as well as learn about state licensing requirements.

American Society for Clinical Pathology Pathologists’ Assistant Certification

The Pathologists’ Assistants (PA) certification is issued by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). This exam costs $530 and consists of 100 multiple choice questions that must be answered in two hours and thirty minutes.

To be eligible to sit for this exam, candidates must:

  • Hold a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution
  • Complete a National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) accredited pathologists’ assistant program with in the past five years

Questions in this exam may be theoretical, aimed at testing knowledge, or procedural, aimed at testing skills. The topics covered in this exam include:

  • Fundamentals of pathology including general and systemic pathology
  • Anatomic pathology techniques
  • Anatomy
  • Autopsy pathology
  • Laboratory operations

It is imperative that candidates study carefully for this exam. The ASCP publishes a list of recommended texts and online resources for candidates to access when studying for this exam. It should be noted that the list published by the ASCP is not exhaustive, and students should review coursework completed, assigned textbooks, and lectures in addition to the resources mentioned in order to be adequately prepared. Some of the resources recommended by the ASCP include:

  • “Autopsy Pathology: A Manual and Atlas(3rd ed.)” A.J. Connolly, et al. (2016). Elsevier, Inc.
  • “Fischbach’s A Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests(10th ed.)” F.T. Fischbach and M.A. Fischbach (2018). Wolters Kluwer Health.
  • “Handbook of Forensic Pathology (2nd ed.).” V.J.M. DiMaio, V.J.M. and S.E. Dana, (2006). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
  • AAPA Macroscopic Examination Guidelines: Utilization of the CAP Cancer Protocols at the Surgical Gross Bench
  • American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC)
  • College of American Pathologists (CAP)

Candidates who pass the exam will need to provide an official transcript from their NAACLS accredited program demonstrating the conferred degree and coursework completed. Once the official transcript has been received, the test score will be released, and the candidate is officially certified.

Pathologists’ Assistant Certification Renewal

The ASCP requires all certificate holders, including pathologists’ assistants, to maintain their credentials through their Credential Maintenance Program (CMP). Credentials must be renewed every three years. The CMP requirements for Pathologists’ assistants are:

  • Earn 45 CMP points, of which one point must be in laboratory or patient safety, and 20 points in anatomic pathology
  • Pay $95 renewal fee

CMP points can be earned for many different continuing education activities, including formal education courses, college coursework, completion of additional certification, presentation at a conference, research paper publication, master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation completion, serving on a pathologists’ assistant committee or board, or a competency assessment done by an employer. ASCP pathologists’ assistants are not required to submit documentation of points earned. However, they must keep careful records of all points in case of an audit.

Beginning on January 1, 2022, there will be additional CMP requirements for pathologists’ assistants. In addition to the already required 45 CMP credits, pathologists’ assistants will need to earn 15 more CMP points for a total of 60 points. The points must be in the following categories:

  • 20 points in anatomic pathology
  • 15 points in advanced anatomic pathology (cancer specimen examination/staging)
  • One point in laboratory or patient safety
  • One point in medical ethics
  • 23 points remaining points in areas of anatomic pathology, management, education, or other clinical specialties

State Licensing for Pathologists’ Assistants

State licensing for pathologists’ assistants varies widely. Some states have licensing requirements specific to pathologists’ assistants, some classify pathologists’ assistants as laboratory personnel and require them to hold a license as such, and some don’t have any requirements at all. Aspiring pathologists’ assistants must contact their licensing board to ensure they have the necessary qualifications to practice in this field.

In New York, for example, pathologists’ assistants must be licensed. The requirements to earn a license are:

  • Pay $200 initial registration and licensing fee
  • Be of good moral character
  • Hold a bachelor’s or higher degree in a pathologists’ assistant program registered by the New York Office of the Profession or a substantially similar program
  • Be at least 21 years old
  • Pass the pathologists’ assistant ASCP exam

At the federal level, anatomic pathology is classified as “highly complex” testing by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) regulations. CLIA regulations govern laboratory testing and require clinical laboratories to obtain certification through the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) before accepting human samples for diagnostic testing. According to the regulations, anyone performing “highly complex” testing must hold at least an associate’s degree.

Kimmy Gustafson
Kimmy Gustafson Writer

With her passion for uncovering the latest innovations and trends, Kimmy Gustafson has provided valuable insights and has interviewed experts to provide readers with the latest information in the rapidly evolving field of medical technology since 2019. Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.