College of American Pathologists
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  President’s Desk Column


cap today

Sharpening your survival skills

November 2004
Mary E. Kass, MD

The geese began to head south just before I left my home on Chesapeake Bay for CAP ’04. I am always struck by the beauty of those birds in flight. This year, I stopped several times to watch them, perhaps because I have spent so much of the past 12 months in transit myself.

While migration and hibernation are valid survival skills for animals in the wild, successful people will choose the former every time. Certainly, the pathologist who hibernates in the laboratory is not optimizing his or her chance of survival. Better to go with the geese.

If you don’t live on a flight path, you might not have thought much about geese since fourth-grade geography class. Back then, your teacher might have told you that birds flying in the V formation cover 70 percent more distance than they could traverse in the same amount of time traveling alone. That’s because the lead bird breaks up the wall of air that the flock is flying into. Each row benefits from that, and also from the swirling air generated by the wings of those in front. The lead position rotates among the geese so that no one bird gets beaten down by the headwind. I like that idea!

Actually, I like a lot of their ideas. Geese know when they need to leave the nest and they’re smart enough to get where they need to go. They know teamwork. They adapt. And they look out for one another. That honking you hear isn’t random; it signals landmarks or threats. The flight formation enables them to keep an eye on one another; that’s why fighter pilots do the same.

As I write this in October, the geese are gone, but we are very much on the move. Our routines will soon be altered as seasonal celebrations begin. A year as your president has given me a bird’s-eye view of pathology and brought forth ideas about resolutions each of us might make to accelerate our collective ascent in 2005. Here’s my list:

  • This year, I will not hibernate with a brown bag every day. Treat yourself to a nonworking lunch in the doctor’s cafeteria at least twice a week. Maybe you’ll sit with someone you know well, and maybe she’ll introduce you to someone you don’t. Maybe you’ll talk about molecular diagnostics. Maybe you’ll talk about basketball. Doesn’t matter. You’ll be out of the nest. And it really is part of the job.
  • This year, I will spend time in the surgeons’ lounge. Everybody needs to check the sports page, the markets, or the comics once in a while. Show an interest in your colleagues by having that cup of coffee in their company. You know where the flock congregates. Why not go to them?
  • This year, I will volunteer for at least one hospital committee. It doesn’t have to be a major committee; a smaller pond is fine. Find out what nobody else wants to do and volunteer. You don’t have to be an expert, just willing to work and eager to learn.
  • This year, I will get out to the floors. When was the last time you went to a bedside? Reviewed a chart? Talked to the nurses? Next time you have a complicated biopsy result, call the surgeon and offer to talk to the patient about it. You will enjoy it, the surgeon will appreciate it, the patient will love it, and the nurses will respect you for it.
  • This year, I will promote new technologies. Have you encouraged surgeons to push for molecular diagnostics in the hospital? Included reference to the electronic medical record in your segment of grand rounds? Become a "go-to" person on informatics. Get people thinking about it!
  • This year, I will join at least one new group. If you enjoy gastrointestinal pathology, consider joining a gastroenterological society. Learn the lingo. Find out what your colleagues are interested in. Meet people on the other end of that specimen tag.
  • This year, I will work on my public speaking skills. Start with a workshop. Then volunteer to give a presentation for students or residents. Gradually build up to larger groups. Be prepared to promote and defend our specialty when it’s your turn to step into the headwind.
  • This year, I will improve my leadership skills. Consider a course on handling confrontation or dealing with difficult colleagues. Set aside at least one time slot at CAP ’05 for a practice management course on the "people piece."
  • This year, I will volunteer for the CAP. We need people to serve on committees, lobby for legislation, inspect for the Laboratory Accreditation Program, or take on any of dozens more tasks within the College. If you aren’t sure how to proceed, please drop me a line (
  • This year, I will actively mentor students, residents, or young physicians. Take a cue from the geese and imprint by example. Show young physicians how an engaged pathologist pursues new experiences. Let them see that they, too, can handle the headwind. As long as we’re here, they’ll have the backup.

As we enter the holiday season, I hope that each of you will count among your blessings your membership in a wonderful professional family. For me, pathology has offered much satisfaction and many opportunities to learn and grow. I look forward to more of the same with as many of you as it becomes my good fortune to know.

Special note: During the Western Party at CAP ’04, I was assigned to draw a name from a hat to select the winner of a pair of airplane tickets. Unfortunately, I drew my own name. As promised, I’ve since drawn a new winner from a pool of residents who attended CAP ’04. The winner of the tickets is Mylinh Thi Mac, MD, a third-year resident at Tulane University Medical Center, New Orleans.