If you want to be precise, the word pathology means “the study (logos) of pain (pathos).” And it’s true, in a way, because a lot of the things we discuss in pathology involve some sort of pain. Not to mention the pain of studying pathology itself, but we won’t get into that, since this is a pain-free space.

What we really study in pathology isn’t pain, exactly, but disease. So if you’re starting out in a pathology course – or even if you’re halfway through – it’s not a bad idea to come up with a little plan of attack for studying diseases.

Why use a plan when learning new diseases?

Because it reduces your cognitive load. You have to hold and process information in your working memory before you can put it in your long-term memory. And your working memory has limited space! So if you approach every disease a different way, and just try to memorize everything, you won’t actually get that information into your long-term memory – and obviously, that’s important for passing exams.

But if you have a little mental template that you use for each disease, that organizes the information into smaller, meaningful chunks that WILL stay in your working memory. Also, if you do that for every disease, it lets your brain relax a bit, because your brain likes categories and consistency.

Here’s a good plan.

Here is a disease plan that works well for pathology because it’s simple, straightforward, and widely applicable. It breaks information down into four categories:

  1. Etiology (cause)
  2. Pathogenesis (mechanism)
  3. Morphology (gross and microscopic appearance)
  4. Clinical manifestations (signs and symptoms)

Can I see an example?

But of course! Let’s take a look at how this would work for a particular disease: squamous cell carcinoma of the lung.

  1. Etiology: smoking
  2. Pathogenesis: The epithelium of the lung passes through several stages – including dysplasia and carcinoma in situ – before developing into invasive carcinoma. Each stage is characterized by different and new genetic abnormalities within the epithelial cells.
  3. Morphology: squamous cell carcinoma cells are large, with abundant cytoplasm and intercellular bridges.
  4. Clinical manifestations: persistent cough and weight loss.

There you go! Obviously you’d want to flesh out these categories a bit more – but this would be a good start.

One last piece of advice

One more nice thing about this plan is that it helps you avoid the “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem so common when you’re first learning about a disease. This plagued me during medical school. I’d learn so much about tiny details that I couldn’t zoom out and give you a big picture. It’s better to start with the big picture and then add in details later.

Your brain will say “Thank you for reducing my cognitive load! I’m so happy!”