What Does a Medical Lab Technician Do? (A Closer Look)
You’ve heard about the exciting career opportunity in the healthcare industry, but you don’t exactly picture yourself as a nurse. It’s important to know that not all healthcare careers involve direct patient care. There are in-demand opportunities in the field that allow you to work behind-the-scenes while still having a positive impact on people’s health.
Becoming a medical lab technician is one of those opportunities. The bright future of this field is indicated by the 14 percent projected increase in employment for medical lab techs through 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 That’s twice the projected national average for all occupations.
That stat alone should pique your interest about this career. But it’s not enough to make up your mind. Before choosing to pursue this profession, you need to be able to answer the following question: What does a medical lab technician do?
We’re here to help answer that and other questions you may have about this career so you’ll have a better understanding of if it’s the right one for you.
What role does a medical lab technician play in the healthcare field?
Hospitals and doctors’ offices wouldn’t be the same without medical lab technicians. These professionals are a critical component of a functioning healthcare facility. They work under the supervision of physicians, lab managers or lab technologists to conduct lab tests on specimens. The work they do behind-the-scenes helps doctors detect diseases or illnesses and determine treatment options.
Though you may not frequently come into contact with a medical lab tech as a patient, it doesn’t mean they don’t play a crucial role on the medical team. If you do encounter a lab tech, they will likely be donning a full lab coat, mask, gloves and goggles while collecting or handling specimens for testing.
Now let’s get into some more specific job duties.
What does a medical lab technician do exactly?
You know medical lab technicians perform lab tests, but what does that actually mean?
Simply put, these tests are chemical analyses of body fluids–such as blood or urine–using a microscope or other advanced lab equipment. These tools help medical lab techs detect abnormalities or diseases, which are then recorded and reported in computer systems. These chemical analyses are considered to be a core job duty, but they also use mechanical and electrical devices to ensure their test results conform to specifications.
Medical lab technicians are also tasked with the following:2
- Setting up, maintaining, calibrating, cleaning and testing the sterility of lab equipment
- Preparing solutions or reagents to be combined with samples
- Collecting blood, tissue or other samples from patients
Along with these job duties, MLTs could also be responsible for matching blood compatibility for transfusions, analyzing the chemical content of fluids or examining immune system elements. Additionally, medical lab techs may search for parasites, bacteria and microorganisms in their samples with sophisticated lab equipment.
What are some medical lab technician specialties?
The roles mentioned above will likely vary based on the specific area in which you specialize. For example, medical lab techs focused on phlebotomy will have duties based around collecting and testing blood.
Other potential medical lab tech specialties include:
- Blood banking
- Clinical chemistry
- Molecular biology
What skills do successful medical lab technicians possess?
It should be obvious by now that much of a medical lab tech’s work revolves around the laboratory. So it shouldn’t be surprising that many precise technical skills are required. But there are several transferrable skills that are just as important to be successful in this role.
We used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 75,000 MLT job postings over the past year.3 This data helped us identify the top hard and soft skills employers are seeking in potential lab technicians.
Here’s what we found:
|Top technical skills||Top transferable skills|
|Patient care||Computer literacy|
|Quality assurance and control||Organization|
|Data entry||Attention to detail|
Take a look at that list on the right. Can you identify with some or all of those characteristics? If so, then you’re off to a great start. When it comes to how you stack up with the technical skills on the left, don’t let it intimidate you. Those are precisely the types of skills that are taught in a Medical Laboratory Technician program.
How do you become a medical lab technician?
Now that you know more about what the job entails, you’re probably curious about what you’ll need to land one of these positions. According to the BLS, most medical lab technicians hold an Associate’s degree in clinical laboratory science or a similar subject.1 These programs include courses on topics such as hematology, phlebotomy, urinalysis, immunology and clinical chemistry.
Some states may also require laboratory personnel to be licensed. To learn the requirements in your state, visit the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS) website. Additionally, some states may require medical lab techs to become certified in order to obtain licensure. No matter whether or not your state requires it for licensure, becoming a certified medical lab tech is still a smart option for lab techs, as it shows a dedication to the field and confirmation of what you’ve learned in an academic program.
Do you have what it takes to work in the lab?
The next time someone asks, “What does a medical lab tech do?” you’ll now be able to answer confidently. Lab techs play a hugely important but often-overlooked role in the daily operations of a healthcare facility as they help physicians diagnose and treat illnesses. While this role might not be the first thing you think of when discussing healthcare careers, becoming a medical lab tech could be an excellent option for anyone who’d like to get started in the field relatively quickly.
If you think a medical lab tech career sounds like it might appeal to you, you’ll want to learn a little more about the types of people that thrive in this field. Check out our article, “6 Signs a Medical Lab Tech Career Is Right for You,” to get a better picture of what it takes to succeed.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [career information accessed May 21, 2018]. www.bls.gov/ooh/. This represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, [career information accessed June 19, 2018] www.bls.gov/oes/.
3Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 75,358 medical lab technician job postings, May 01, 2017 – April 30, 2018).
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in August 2015. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2018.