How to Become a Medical Laboratory Technician
Medical laboratory technicians may function behind the scenes, but the work that they do is exciting, varied and vital to the quality of a patient's healthcare. Conducting lab tests ordered by doctors and other healthcare providers, these professionals work with human bodily fluids and tissue samples to determine diagnoses and identify abnormalities. They work with microscopes, computers and other automated laboratory machines, where they keep detailed records of the data they compile.
Some medical laboratory technicians prefer the more generalist nature of work at a large hospital lab or independent facility while others pursue a specialty in areas such as immunology, microbiology and clinical chemistry. No matter which approach they choose, they are important members of the healthcare industry whose work is instrumental in determining the correct diagnoses.
Most medical laboratory technicians work in hospitals and medical or diagnostic laboratories; a smaller percentage work in physicians’ and dentists’ offices, or in state or federal agencies. While some of their work involves contact with infectious material or pungent fumes, technicians are always properly protected, wearing goggles, gloves, or masks for much of their workday. They generally keep regular business hours, though some work in the evenings, on nights, weekends, and some holidays, as needed by hospitals and other 24-hour facilities.
Medical lab technicians need a two-year associate’s degree to work in their field. Those with degrees or experience in a similar field are eligible for one-year certificate programs. Courses in these programs tend to be science-oriented and focus 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.
Medical lab technicians are trained on the job by a medical laboratory technologist or a senior technician. In some cases, a healthcare or medical professional is the primary trainer. The training duration depends on the employer’s policies and the technician’s previous experience.
Licensing and/or Certification
In some states, medical lab technicians must have a license or be registered to work. Licensure often involves passing an exam or undergoing a certification process, and requirements vary by state.
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 their technical skills—such as the ability to understand and operate complex machinery, and to collect and analyze data—medical lab technicians must have an eye for detail. These employees must strive to obtain the most accurate results possible due to the importance of their work. They should possess good manual dexterity for working precisely with microscopic material, and have stamina, too, needed when spending extended time sitting and analyzing a specimen, or when on their feet for long periods during the workday.
Opportunities for Advancement
Medical lab technicians often become medical laboratory technologists—bachelor’s-degree-prepared professionals who perform more complex laboratory work and have a leadership role. Medical lab techs also have a good knowledge base to become scientists, researchers, or even transition into a senior or administrative role. They can also move from allied health to direct patient care jobs, such as nursing; or they can switch fields and work as veterinary, biologic, or chemistry lab technicians.
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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical laboratory technicians’ salaries ranged from approximately $24,210 to $56,040 in 2010, with a median annual wage of about $36,000. Federal government jobs paid the highest, followed by hospitals, physicians’ offices and lastly, medical and diagnostic laboratories.
The job outlook for medical lab technicians is positive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical lab technician employment is projected to grow by about 15 percent in the next decade. This predicted increase is due to the anticipated healthcare needs of the aging U.S. population, the projected fall in costs of lab tests, and the increase in the quality and quantity of data the tests provide. In addition, those workers with experience in a number of specialties will have an increased chance of getting jobs.