What is a Medical Lab Technician? A Career Under the Microscope
It’s common for a doctor to order a blood test, take a tissue sample, or have other bodily fluids from a patient tested. But after you’ve given your two vials of blood and are enjoying some animal crackers and a juice box to combat any lightheadedness, you may wonder where that sample actually went? And who is doing what to it?
Enter the medical lab technician (MLT). What is a medical lab technician, you ask? Sometimes referred to as a medical laboratory scientist, an MLT collects blood, tissue and other bodily substance samples and performs medical tests on them. These men and women work behind-the-scenes to help find cures, discover diseases and report important and potentially life-saving findings.
If you have a flair for science, an eye for detail and you love the idea of solving a medical mystery that could help save a life, you may be destined to become a medical lab technician! But before you sign on the dotted line, we gathered government data and some expert insight to give you behind-the-scenes look at this career.
What education & credentials do medical lab technicians need?
First of all, it’s important to recognize the difference between a medical lab technologist and a medical lab technician. While a medical lab technologist is typically required to have a bachelor’s degree, a medical lab technician is usually expected to hold an associate degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Every clinic will vary, but many require their MLT professionals to also be certified in their specialty. You have the option to choose an area that interests you most, such as medical biology, immunology, genetics, coagulation and many others.
What is the work environment like for a medical lab technician?
Most medical lab technicians work at a general medical or surgical hospital, according to the BLS. However, some work at medical laboratories or physicians’ offices and others work directly out of colleges or universities. An MLT may work under the management of physicians, lab managers or medical technologists depending on the location.
FACT: Jobs for medical lab techs are projected to increase 13% by 2026.
It’s typical for MLTs to work full time. It’s important that they have good physical stamina because they often spend much of their day on their feet while testing lab samples. Those MLTs who work at an independent lab or hospital may end up working unconventional hours like overnight or on the weekends. Certain types of MLT professionals also have to be on call for emergencies.
What duties & tasks do medical lab technicians complete?
On a regular basis, medical lab technicians are testing blood, urine or tissue samples, preparing specimens, analyzing fluid chemical content, matching blood compatibility for transfusions and completing many other types of diagnostic duties. Sometimes they’re the ones to take the blood, fluid or tissue sample themselves. MLTs also record data and make sure patients’ files are up to date with the latest test results.
Another major responsibility of a medical lab technician is learning how to set up, sanitize and use complicated laboratory equipment. Healthcare technology is ever-evolving, so the sophistication of testing gear in a lab is quite impressive. MLTs are required to interact with and rely on this type of equipment on a daily basis.
What are the key characteristics a medical lab technician should have?
Medical lab technicians come in all varieties, but there are some specific traits that lend themselves well to the profession. The role requires a lot of technical knowledge but also calls for a keen eye for detail, according to Tario Moore, medical lab technologist at Merit Health Central.
“Medical technicians deal with the logistics of samples and this can get complicated quickly,” Moore says. Without great precision and attention to detail, an MLT could overlook an important sign that reveals a certain diagnosis. Active listening and complex problem solving are also important characteristics, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Dexterity with one’s hands is another key trait. MLTs are often transporting samples and small tools with their fingers, so a good, firm grip and accurate movements are a must.
Capitalize on the career opportunity
Medical lab technician jobs are expected to increase by 13 percent through 2026, according the BLS. This is much faster than the average occupation, which is largely due to federal health legislation and an aging population, resulting in a greater need for diagnosis of cancer and diabetes.
So the next time someone asks, “What is a medical lab technician,” you should be able to provide an educated answer. Your answer may even be backed up by firsthand experience if you choose to pursue this career path.
To learn more about the life of a medical lab technician, check out this behind-the-scenes look at working in a lab.