Medical laboratory technicians and technologists process body fluids and tissue samples for the presence of bacteria, parasites and other microorganisms that indicate the presence of illness or disease. Because of new medical advances, medical careers like this are expected to increase by 14 percent in the next 10 years.
Medical laboratory technicians have excellent job prospects because of advancements in genomics, the study of human genetics, which will increase the number of medical tests performed. However, new automated processing procedures are becoming available, as well, which do not require handling by laboratory personnel. Lab technicians should pursue the additional education needed to become lab technologists, those who process more complex tests.
Lab technologists make cultures of body fluids and tissue samples, which take longer to process. They determine concentrations of compounds such as blood glucose and cholesterol levels. They also provide quality control for lab work processes, and they modify procedures, if needed, to improve accuracy. They may also supervise technicians. Technologists have at least a bachelor's degree in medical technology or one of the life sciences. Coursework in medical technology programs includes chemistry, biology, microbiology, mathematics and statistics. It also includes training in a clinical laboratory.
Medical laboratory technicians need an associate's degree or a certificate to practice. Phlebotomists are one kind of lab technician. They collect blood samples from patients. And histotechnicians prepare tissue specimens to be examined by pathologists under a microscope.
Medical laboratory technicians and technologists who work in larger facilities may specialize in processing a particular type of test. Those who work for smaller facilities are usually generalists who may process a number of different kinds of lab tests in a given day. Examples of specializations are blood bank technologists, who identify blood types and prepare blood and its components for transfusions. Molecular biology technologists perform complex protein and nucleic acid testing on samples, and clinical chemistry technologists analyze the chemical and hormonal contents of body fluids.
Other specializations include medical appliance technicians, who construct, fit, and repair artificial limbs, braces, arch supports and other medical appliances. Growth is expected in dental and ophthalmic lab technician jobs. Dental lab technicians prepare crowns, bridges and dentures, which are custom made for individual patients. Ophthalmic lab technicians make prescription eyeglasses and contact lenses.
The starting salary for medical laboratory technicians and technologists averages $34,300 annually, and you can expect to earn up to $66,000 annually, depending on the city in which you work. Since you will likely be employed by a hospital or medical clinic, you will likely be eligible for medical insurance and other benefits.
Presently, 328,100 medical laboratory technicians and technologists are employed throughout the United States, and 45,600 job openings are expected during the next 10 years.
Beyond what students can learn from a textbook, individuals who do well in this profession have a knack for chemistry and have great attention to detail to keep track of the steps taken in processing lab tests. Even slight variations in the math or the quantity of chemicals used in processing can change test results, which determine patient diagnoses. Incorrect diagnoses are a liability to the hospital or clinic you work for because they can result in patients being prescribed medications or other treatments that they don't need which could be harmful to them.
Medical laboratory technicians who advance into positions with more responsibility have proven themselves by being very accurate and taking great care to follow established quality control protocols. Although they often have little contact with patients, individuals in this profession often have the same level of compassion for patients as other medical professionals.
Certification in this profession is often required by employers. Organizations that offer such certifications include the Board of Registry of the American Society for Clinical Pathology, the American Medical Technologists, the National Credentialing Agency for Laboratory Personnel and the Board of Registry of the American Association of Bioanalysts.
Many individuals in this profession work full-time, although part-time positions are often available. Depending on the facility in which you work, you may work day, evening or night shifts and you may work weekends and holidays as part of your regular schedule. You may also be required to be on call at night or on weekends to be available in an emergency. Overtime is often available, although most facilities are careful to not overwork their employees, as fatigue increases the chance of error.
You will often work on your own when processing lab tests, but you will work in a team environment with other medical lab professionals regarding quality control protocol. You will also communicate with doctors and nurses to relay test results.
Medical laboratory technicians and technologists must wear protective gear including latex gloves, as well as goggles or face masks to prevent contamination. You will also wear a uniform such as scrubs or a lab coat. Expect to be on your feet most of the time, so you should wear comfortable shoes.
Colorblindness is a problem in this profession, as some test results are determined by the color a sample turns when combined with a particular chemical.
Basic Office Skills Required
Medical laboratory technicians need to have basic office skills including spelling, grammar and punctuation, and basic math skills. You should have a working knowledge of common office computer programs such as MS Word, Excel and Outlook, as well as medical database software. Verbal communication skills are also important in working with other lab personnel. Be able to plan ahead and meet deadlines.
Medical laboratory technicians and technologists have medical jobs that are often behind the scenes, but they play an integral role in the diagnosis of patients. Attention to detail and accuracy are important qualities in this profession.
David is a medical laboratory technician in a hospital lab, where he works under the direction of a technologist to process a variety of medical tests. He primarily works with blood samples from patients, although he also stains tissue samples with dye for his boss to analyze under a microscope. Medical careers like his often involve little contact with patients, but their work is essential to the medical process.
David completed his certification as a phlebotomist three years ago and first worked for a blood bank, where he drew blood from donors and helped a technologist prepare pints for blood transfusions. He performed tests to rule out certain diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis.
Because of his attention to detail and strict observance of quality control measures, he was quickly promoted to a lab technician position within his local hospital, where he performs tests on blood samples from patients.
Each type of test, whether it be a pregnancy test, white blood cell count, or a blood glucose test, involves a step-by-step processing procedure. Some tests take longer to perform than others. David usually handles the more complicated tests such as HIV and hepatitis that include multiple steps.
Some blood tests, such as pregnancy tests, can be processed by nurses or medical assistants because syringes now come in prepackaged kits that include pre-measured processing chemicals. David knows that as more procedures like this become available, it lessens the demand for medical laboratory technicians. As a result, David has recently enrolled at a four-year university, where he hopes to complete a bachelor's degree in medical technology which will qualify him to be a technologist. The hospital will let him work in the evenings so he can attend classes during the day. Because he has already completed some general education classes, he will be able to finish his degree in three years.
Technologists perform more complicated tests than medical laboratory technicians, such as those which involve growing cultures. General coursework David will complete in college includes chemistry, biology, microbiology, math and statistics, and he will also complete classes that are specific to lab work. Chemistry was a strong subject for David in high school, and he enjoys working with chemicals as a lab technician.
The work of medical laboratory technicians is often very repetitive, but David likes the order that the tests require. He likes working in an environment where it is clear what is expected of him. He also likes to be able to go home at the end of the day and really be home, which is not always possible with some jobs. He also likes the ability to work overtime sometimes.
Accuracy is critical to David's job. If a sample is processed the slightest bit inaccurately, it can make all the difference in the test results, which can influence a doctor's diagnosis of a patient, as well as medications or procedures that the doctor prescribes in response. That's why David's lab has such strict quality control measures.
As a medical laboratory technician, David knows he plays an important role in a patient's diagnosis. Medical jobs like his are all about accuracy and attention to detail.
Well educated and seasoned lab technologists have a great job outlook.
Even slight errors in the math or in chemicals used can alter test results.
Choose this job if you have an eye for detail and enjoy chemistry.