Anatomical pathology technologists assist with post-mortem examinations and ensure that the families of the deceased receive the highest level of support

As an anatomical pathology technologist (APT), you'll work in mortuaries assisting pathologists conducting post-mortem examinations. You'll take and deliver samples of tissue and fluids, which will help you understand disease processes as well as establish the cause of death. You'll also reconstruct and clean the body afterwards to the highest standard, so it can be viewed by loved ones.

As part of the role, you'll undertake administrative tasks such as admitting the deceased, checking their identity and processing their paperwork. You'll also liaise with funeral directors and release bodies into their care. APTs interact with a range of other professional people as well as funeral directors, including police, coroners' officers, medical and nursing staff, and spiritual care teams.)

A significant part of the job involves arranging visits and supporting families who wish to see their relatives.

APTs are also sometimes referred to as anatomical pathology technicians.

Responsibilities

As an APT, you may need to:

  • receive the deceased and place them into refrigerated storage
  • record the identity of the deceased
  • take care of the deceased's personal belongings
  • take samples and specimens, weigh organs as they're removed and make a record of findings during the post-mortem examination
  • ensure equipment, instruments and rooms are clean and appropriately kept
  • sterilise instruments and make sure they're ready for use
  • liaise with coroners (Northern Ireland, England and Wales) or procurator fiscal services (Scotland) where the cause of death is suspicious or unknown
  • clean the deceased and reconstruct ready for release to the undertaker
  • administer the day-to-day running of a mortuary
  • arrange and conduct viewings for relatives in the mortuary quiet room
  • provide information and advice to relatives on issues such as death certificates and funeral arrangements.

Experienced APTs may also:

  • take a lead on the day-to-day running of a mortuary
  • deliver training on mortuary policies and procedures
  • mentor trainee APTs.

Salary

  • Salaries for trainee APTs working in the NHS typically start at £19,737 (Band 3 of the Agenda for Change - pay rates).
  • Once qualified, you can earn between £21,892 and £24,157 (Band 4).
  • Senior APTs with additional duties, such as training and management, can earn between £24,907 and £37,890 (Bands 5 and 6).

Salaries vary across the country with trainee salaries ranging from Band 3 to Band 5, for example, and hospitals will set their own salary levels.

Other factors that can affect salaries include your experience, level of training, location, professional registration and the exact nature of the role.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll usually work 37.5 hours per week. However, you may need to work a shift pattern, be on-call and go into work out of hours.

Part-time and short-term locum work is also common.

What to expect

  • When working in the post-mortem room, you'll need to wear protective clothing, such as gloves, a theatre gown, visor and boots.
  • You should be prepared for an emotionally, as well as physically, challenging working environment.
  • A large part of the job involves responding to unexpected situations, so you'll have to be flexible and prepared to switch tasks at short notice.
  • You will need to have a professional appearance and manner, as well as an awareness of the impact your own behaviour has on others.
  • Rituals around death form a central part in many religious practices and you'll need to be open and, where possible, accommodating to relatives of varying religious beliefs.

Qualifications

You'll typically need five GCSEs or equivalent, including science (preferably biology), maths and English, to train to become an APT.

Although you don't need a degree, you may find that a degree in anatomy or a related science will prove useful at later stages of your career. However, as a graduate you'll still have to apply for trainee-level posts.

Training is carried out on the job, combining both theory and practical work, and you'll need to secure a trainee post at a hospital or a public mortuary. During your training, as a minimum, you'll work towards the RSPH Level 3 Diploma in Healthcare Science (Anatomical Pathology Technology), awarded by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH).

During training, you can apply for student membership of the Association of Anatomical Pathology Technology (AAPT).

You will be expected to complete training within two years, during which time you'll work under the close supervision of a mentor, who will be a senior work colleague. All trainees are required to complete a portfolio of evidence of their training and competence in practical APT skills. Your practical skills will be assessed independently in your workplace.

Practical modules cover:

  • preparing for a for post-mortem examination
  • assisting with the post-mortem examination
  • viewing of the deceased
  • preparation and operation of a mortuary
  • effective team working.

You'll also undertake five theory modules covering:

  • human anatomy and physiology
  • the governance and administration of mortuary practices
  • health and safety in the mortuary
  • infection control
  • effective communication.

Once you've obtained the Level 3 Diploma, you can apply for membership of RSPH and the AAPT. You can also apply for voluntary registration with the Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS) Healthcare Science Practitioner Register and registration with the Science Council.

Due to the highly specialised nature of APT work, trainee positions don't come up that often and are highly competitive. You may have to consider relocating in order to source a post.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • excellent attention to detail
  • the ability to work well under pressure and to remain calm in challenging and emotive circumstances
  • a good knowledge of anatomy
  • a good understanding of health and safety
  • interpersonal skills and empathy for offering information and support to the bereaved in a respectful and compassionate manner
  • an approachable and non-judgemental attitude
  • written communication skills for writing reports
  • initiative and the ability to work independently
  • confidence in your own judgement
  • teamworking skills for working with pathologists and liaising with other professionals such as the police, coroners and fiscal procurators
  • an understanding of the diversity of religious, non-religious and cultural beliefs, funeral customs and practices surrounding death
  • a proactive and self-motivated approach to work
  • IT skills and an understanding of how to handle sensitive personal information
  • knowledge of the Human Tissue Act and coronial law.

You'll also need a reasonable level of physical fitness and be able to stand for long periods of time, as well as manual dexterity and the ability to handle heavy lifting equipment.

If you're working for the NHS, or an organisation which provides NHS services, you'll also be expected to have an understanding of how the NHS values apply to your work.

Work experience

Because all training is provided on the job, related work experience is less crucial than in many other career paths. However, you'll find that previous work experience can provide you with an opportunity to develop and articulate many of the necessary skills that the training providers will be looking for. In particular, any previous experience of record keeping and dealing with legal documents is advantageous.

It can be challenging to find work experience in a mortuary, but work in a laboratory or with an undertaker or funeral directors is useful. Working with bereavement services, care homes, hospices and hospitals could also provide valuable contacts and experience.

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.

Employers

APTs work almost exclusively for NHS hospital mortuaries or local authority public mortuaries.

There are around 700 APTs across the UK, with 15 to 20 trainee positions available annually (AAPT).

Look for vacancy sources at:

Professional development

Once qualified, you'll need to keep up to date with changes to mortuary policies and procedures, and be aware of developments in your area of work.

Membership of the AAPT is useful. They organise a range of education events relating to anatomical pathology technology, including an annual conference. They also have an online CPD scheme, which you can use to record your own personal development.

The RSPH also offers a range of events, conferences and webinars to its members. Membership is open to anyone working in public health, and once you've got experience of working as an APT you can progress from associate to member (MRSPH).

Once qualified, many APTs build on their skills and knowledge by taking the RSPH Level 4 Diploma in Healthcare Science (Anatomical Pathology Technology). This qualification provides training in more advanced practices and mortuary procedures, as well as managerial skills.

Higher-level qualifications, which are part of the NHS Practitioner Training Programme leading to a BSc (Hons) Anatomical Pathology Technology, are currently in development.

As a qualified anatomical pathology technologist, you can apply for registration with the Science Council. There are three levels of registration - Registered Science Technician (RSciTech), Registered Scientist (RSci) and Chartered Scientist (CSci) - that you can apply for, depending on your level of qualifications, experience and membership of the AAPT. Registration shows your commitment to professional standards and the APT profession, and can be useful for career progression.

Career prospects

Once you've completed your Level 3 Diploma and become more experienced with practical aspects of the job, you'll start to work more autonomously and have more responsibility for arranging the day-to-day running of a mortuary. The natural next step is to progress into a senior APT role. For more senior roles, employers usually expect APTs to hold the Level 4 Diploma.

As a senior APT, you'll begin to take on teaching and managerial responsibilities in addition to your mortuary work. You're likely to deliver training sessions and mentor and manage junior colleagues, as well as provide training to other staff groups within the NHS, such as last offices training (the preparation of a dead person for burial) for nursing staff.

Further progression can be into advanced technical work or into an education or mortuary management role. Bear in mind that if you decide to progress into a more senior managerial position, you're less likely to be involved with practical post-mortem work.

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