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Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians
Nature of the Work | Working Conditions | Employment | Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement | Job Outlook | Earnings | Related Occupations | Sources of Additional Information
Clinical laboratory testing plays a crucial role in the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, also known as medical technologists and technicians, perform most of these tests.
Clinical laboratory personnel examine and analyze body fluids, tissues, and cells. They look for bacteria, parasites, and other microorganisms; analyze the chemical content of fluids; match blood for transfusions, and test for drug levels in the blood to show how a patient is responding to treatment. These technologists also prepare specimens for examination, count cells, and look for abnormal cells. They use automated equipment and instruments capable of performing a number of tests simultaneously, as well as microscopes, cell counters, and other sophisticated laboratory equipment. Then they analyze the results and relay them to physicians. With increasing automation and the use of computer technology, the work of technologists and technicians has become less hands-on and more analytical.
The complexity of tests performed, the level of judgment needed, and the amount of responsibility workers assume depend largely on the amount of education and experience they have.
Medical and clinical laboratory technologists generally have a bachelors degree in medical technology or in one of the life sciences, or they have a combination of formal training and work experience. They perform complex chemical, biological, hematological, immunologic, microscopic, and bacteriological tests. Technologists microscopically examine blood, tissue, and other body substances. They make cultures of body fluid and tissue samples, to determine the presence of bacteria, fungi, parasites, or other microorganisms. They analyze samples for chemical content or reaction and determine blood glucose and cholesterol levels. They also type and cross match blood samples for transfusions.
Medical and clinical laboratory technologists evaluate test results, develop and modify procedures, and establish and monitor programs, to insure the accuracy of tests. Some medical and clinical laboratory technologists supervise medical and clinical laboratory technicians.
Technologists in small laboratories perform many types of tests, whereas those in large laboratories generally specialize. Technologists who prepare specimens and analyze the chemical and hormonal contents of body fluids are clinical chemistry technologists. Those who examine and identify bacteria and other microorganisms are microbiology technologists. Blood bank technologists collect, type, and prepare blood and its components for transfusions. Immunology technologists examine elements and responses of the human immune system to foreign bodies. Cytotechnologists prepare slides of body cells and microscopically examine these cells for abnormalities that may signal the beginning of a cancerous growth.
Medical and clinical laboratory technicians perform less complex tests and laboratory procedures than technologists. Technicians may prepare specimens and operate automatic analyzers, for example, or they may perform manual tests following detailed instructions. Like technologists, they may work in several areas of the clinical laboratory or specialize in just one. Histology technicians cut and stain tissue specimens for microscopic examination by pathologists, and phlebotomists collect blood samples. They usually work under the supervision of medical and clinical laboratory technologists or laboratory managers.
Hours and other working conditions vary, according to the size and type of employment setting. In large hospitals or in independent laboratories that operate continuously, personnel usually work the day, evening, or night shift and may work weekends and holidays. Laboratory personnel in small facilities may work on rotating shifts, rather than on a regular shift. In some facilities, laboratory personnel are on call several nights a week or on weekends, available in case of emergency.
Clinical laboratory personnel are trained to work with infectious specimens. When proper methods of infection control and sterilization are followed, few hazards exist.
Laboratories usually are well lighted and clean; however, specimens, solutions, and reagents used in the laboratory sometimes produce odors. Laboratory workers may spend a great deal of time on their feet.
Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians held about 313,000 jobs in 1998. About half worked in hospitals. Most of the remaining jobs were found in medical laboratories or offices and clinics of physicians. A small number were in blood banks, research and testing laboratories, and in the Federal Governmentat Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and U.S. Public Health Service facilities. About 1 laboratory worker in 5 worked part time.
The usual requirement for an entry level position as a medical or clinical laboratory technologist is a bachelors degree with a major in medical technology or in one of the life sciences. Universities and hospitals offer medical technology programs. It is also possible to qualify through a combination of on-the-job and specialized training.
Bachelors degree programs in medical technology include courses in chemistry, biological sciences, microbiology, mathematics, and specialized courses devoted to knowledge and skills used in the clinical laboratory. Many programs also offer or require courses in management, business, and computer applications. The Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act (CLIA) requires technologists who perform certain highly complex tests to have at least an associates degree.
Medical and clinical laboratory technicians generally have either an associates degree from a community or junior college or a certificate from a hospital, vocational or technical school, or from one of the Armed Forces. A few technicians learn their skills on the job.
Nationally recognized accrediting agencies in clinical laboratory science include the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS), the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). The NAACLS fully accredits 288 and approves 249 programs providing education for medical and clinical laboratory technologists, histologic technicians, and medical and clinical laboratory technicians. ABHES accredits training programs for medical and clinical laboratory technicians.
Some States require laboratory personnel to be licensed or registered. Information on licensure is available from State departments of health or boards of occupational licensing. Certification is a voluntary process by which a nongovernmental organization, such as a professional society or certifying agency, grants recognition to an individual whose professional competence meets prescribed standards. Widely accepted by employers in the health industry, certification is a prerequisite for most jobs and often is necessary for advancement. Agencies certifying medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians include the Board of Registry of the American Society of Clinical Pathologists, the American Medical Technologists, and the Credentialing Commission of the International Society for Clinical Laboratory Technology. These agencies have different requirements for certification and different organizational sponsors.
Clinical laboratory personnel need good analytical judgment and the ability to work under pressure. Close attention to detail is essential, because small differences or changes in test substances or numerical readouts can be crucial for patient care. Manual dexterity and normal color vision are highly desirable. With the widespread use of automated laboratory equipment, computer skills are important. In addition, technologists in particular are expected to be good at problem solving.
Technologists may advance to supervisory positions in laboratory work or become chief medical or clinical laboratory technologists or laboratory managers in hospitals. Manufacturers of home diagnostic testing kits and laboratory equipment and supplies seek experienced technologists to work in product development, marketing, and sales. Graduate education in medical technology, one of the biological sciences, chemistry, management, or education usually speeds advancement. A doctorate is needed to become a laboratory director. However, federal regulation allows directors of moderate complexity laboratories to have either a masters degree or a bachelors degree combined with the appropriate amount of training and experience. Technicians can become technologists through additional education and experience.
Employment of clinical laboratory workers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2008, as the volume of laboratory tests increases with population growth and the development of new types of tests. Hospitals and independent laboratories have recently undergone considerable consolidation and restructuring, to boost productivity and allow the same number of personnel to perform more tests than previously possible. Consequently, competition for jobs has increased; and individuals may now have to spend more time seeking employment than in the past.
Technological advances will continue to have two opposing effects on employment through 2008. New, increasingly powerful diagnostic tests will encourage additional testing and spur employment. However, advances in laboratory automation and simple tests, which make it possible for each worker to perform more tests, should slow growth. Research and development efforts are targeted at simplifying routine testing procedures, so nonlaboratory personnel, physicians and patients, in particular, can perform tests now done in laboratories. In addition, automation may be used to prepare specimens, a job traditionally done by technologists and technicians.
Although significant, growth will not be the only source of opportunities. As in most occupations, many openings will result from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations, retire, or stop working for some other reason.
Median annual earnings of clinical laboratory technologists and technicians were $32,440 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $24,970 and $39,810 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $19,380 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $48,290 a year. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of medical and clinical laboratory technologists in 1997 were:
Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of medical and clinical laboratory technicians in 1997 were:
Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians analyze body fluids, tissue, and other substances using a variety of tests. Similar or related procedures are performed by analytical, water purification, and other chemists; science technicians; crime laboratory analysts; food testers; and veterinary laboratory technicians.
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Career and certification information is available from:
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For a list of accredited and approved educational programs for clinical laboratory personnel, write to:
For a list of training programs for medical and clinical laboratory technicians accredited by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, write to:
For information about a career as a medical and clinical laboratory technician and schools offering training, contact:
An industry employing clinical laboratory technologists and technicians that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Health services
Last Updated: March 30, 2000
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