How to Become a Medical Laboratory Technician
The work of the medical laboratory technician is exciting, varied and vital to the quality of a patient's healthcare. Medical lab technicians (also referred to as medical laboratory scientists/technologists or clinical laboratory science professionals) work behind the scenes as highly skilled scientists to performs tests that detect the absence or presence of disease. Results of the tests performed by these scientists are passed on to physicians so that they can treat patients and manage disease according to the findings.
Laboratory tests ordered for the patients are based on recommendations from doctors and other healthcare providers. Lab technicians usually have no direct interaction with the patients, but rather perform tests on human bodily fluids, tissue samples and cells collected by nurses or other healthcare professionals to determine diagnoses and identify abnormalities. Technicians work with microscopes, computers and other automated laboratory equipment, keeping detailed records of the data they compile.
The duties of a medical laboratory technician can be general in nature or specialized in areas such as immunology, microbiology and clinical chemistry. Both specialized and general roles are important for the medical field as the results of their testing help physicians to accurately diagnose and treat cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other serious health conditions. These tests can also be used for the prevention and management of disease.
About half of medical laboratory technicians work in hospitals, while the rest work in specialized medical or diagnostic laboratories; in physician and dentist offices; and in state or federal agencies. Some of the work can involve contact with infectious materials or hazardous agents, but technicians are always properly trained and protected, wearing goggles, gloves or masks for much of their workday. Safety training occurs regularly to prevent accidents.
The work hours provide a great degree of flexibility because most facilities require medical laboratory technicians on staff 24 hours a day. Hours may be normal business hours, evenings, nights, weekends, and some holidays, as needed by the hospitals and other 24-hour facilities.
To hold the title of a medical laboratory technician or a clinical laboratory technician, a two-year associate degree is required. A job with the title medical laboratory scientist/technologist requires a bachelor’s degree. Candidates must obtain this education through a program accredited by the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS). Training programs are available all over the country and are specific to the degree desired. The courses in these programs tend to be science-oriented, focusing on general laboratory knowledge. Finding an accredited program is beneficial for better job opportunities, and the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences has a list of accredited educational programs.
All jobs in this field require continuing education in order to stay up-to-date with the latest technologies. Most employees pay for all or part of the continuing education.
After the prospective technicians have attained training in the classroom, a medical laboratory technologist or senior technician will provide on-the-job training to them. In some cases, a healthcare or medical professional is the primary trainer. The training duration depends on the employer’s policies and a technician’s previous experience.
Licensing and/or Certification
In most states, medical laboratory technicians must have a license or be registered to work. Licensure often involves passing an exam or undergoing a certification process. Requirements vary by state. Details should be obtained through the local state board or department of health.
All medical laboratory scientists/technologists must pass a national certification exam and also be licensed in the state in which they work. Often an internship or trainee position is required before obtaining a license.
Along with the mandates of some individual states, many employers require their lab employees to be certified. In these cases, medical lab technicians are certified in general or specialty areas through American Medical Technologists or the American Society for Clinical Pathology. Technicians keep their certification current by taking advantage of continuing education classes, available through professional associations or employers.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
In addition to technical skills, such as the ability to understand and operate sophisticated biomedical instruments and to collect and analyze data, a medical laboratory technician must have an eye for detail and follow directions very well. The accuracy of the test results is vitally important to the patient and doctors, and thus, medical laboratory technicians must strive to perform the tests very precisely to obtain the most accurate results. In order to conduct the tests, good manual dexterity is also required. Often it is necessary to spend an extended amount of time sitting and analyzing a specimen. At other times, a test can require the lab technician to be on his or her feet for long periods during the workday, requiring stamina and patience. Medical lab technicians must also be good communicators and have the ability to multitask.
Opportunities for Advancement
Laboratory technicians often continue their education to become medical laboratory technologists. Technicians also have a good knowledge base to become scientists or researchers, or even transition into a senior or administrative role. As a medical laboratory technologist, there is more room to advance into management positions.
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Salary and Job Outlook
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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for medical laboratory technicians was $38,370 as of May 2014, while for a medical laboratory technologist it was $59,430. Outpatient facilities paid the highest, followed by hospitals, physician offices, and medical and diagnostic laboratories.
The job outlook for medical lab technicians is positive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical laboratory technician employment is projected to grow by about 30% between 2012 and 2022, which is much faster than the average job growth. This predicted increase is due to the anticipated healthcare needs of the aging U.S. population, which will require laboratory testing for conditions such as diabetes and cancer. In addition, it is expected that workers with experience in a number of specialties will have the greatest chance for employment.