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 professional people as well as funeral directors, including police, spiritual care teams and clinical staff.

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 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 £18,813 (Band 3 of the Agenda for Change - pay rates).
  • Experienced APTs typically earn between £21,000 and £30,000.
  • Senior APTs with additional duties, such as training and management, can earn around £35,000 and over.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll usually work 37 to 40 hours a week, typically starting at 8am. However, you may need to 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.
  • 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 need five GCSEs (or equivalent), including science, 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). You can apply for trainee (student) grade membership of the Association of Anatomical Pathology Technology (AAPT) at AAPT - Join AAPT.

Training can take up to three years to complete, during which time you'll work under the close supervision of a senior colleague. You'll learn post-mortem techniques for evisceration and reconstruction, anatomy and physiology, mortuary governance and administration. You'll also have to attend mandatory training in health and safety, infection control and manual handling.

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. Once you've obtained the Level 3 Diploma, you can apply for associate membership of RSPH and membership of AAPT.

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
  • 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
  • written communication skills for writing reports
  • initiative and the ability to work independently
  • team-working 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 and cultural beliefs surrounding death
  • knowledge of the Human Tissue Act and coronial law.

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 working with bereavement services, care homes, hospices and hospitals could provide valuable contacts and experience.

Employers

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

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 can be 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).

You can build on your skills and knowledge by taking the RSPH Level 4 Diploma in 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.

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.

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 managerial 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.