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When you visit a doctor’s office or enter a hospital, you expect to deal with medical personnel. You most frequently interact with physicians and nurses who are responsible for providing patient care. You are also likely to interact with office and administrative staff members who schedule your appointments and tests. They also assist you with insurance claims processing and billing issues.

While these dedicated individuals play essential roles in the delivery of healthcare on the “front lines,” there are other professionals working behind the scenes. These professionals ensure that doctors and nurses have the information they need to properly diagnose medical conditions and develop effective and safe treatment protocols for their patients. One such professional is the Medical Laboratory Technician.

What Is a Medical Lab Technician?

If you have ever had blood drawn or provided urine or tissue samples for testing, it has likely been sent to a Medical Laboratory Technician for evaluation. A Medical Lab Technician (MLT) is a specially-trained medical professional who performs tests on tissues, blood, and other bodily fluids to assist physicians in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses.

Medical lab techs use specialized equipment such as microscopes, cell counters, and computerized analyzers to conduct various testing procedures. The Medical Lab Technician typically works in a laboratory setting located in a hospital, doctor’s office, or other medical facility.

What Does a Medical Lab Technician Do on a Daily Basis?

If you’re thinking of pursuing a career as a lab tech, you may be asking yourself, “What does a medical technician do on a day-to-day basis?” Here’s a brief synopsis of the typical MLT job duties:

  • Receive bodily fluid and tissue samples provided by a phlebotomist — a medical professional who specializes in drawing samples from patients
  • Follow specified procedures for logging the samples and prepare them for testing
  • Set up the laboratory equipment required for testing
  • Conduct the tests by following established testing procedures
  • Clean and sterilize the testing area and equipment
  • Communicate test findings to physicians and provide additional information as requested

Specific job functions that MLTs may perform include examining samples for malignancies (cancerous growths), cell abnormalities, and the presence of bacteria or parasites. They may also be involved in blood-typing or other forms of blood work.

How to Become a Lab Tech

Becoming a lab tech is a great way to secure a rewarding career in the healthcare industry. As is the case with most challenging and rewarding career fields, education is the key to getting started and succeeding in the MLT role. If you’re a high school student, taking courses in biology, microbiology, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science will provide a solid educational foundation that will prepare you for the advanced college training required to gain employment.

In addition to a high school diploma, most employers will require you to have an MLT degree. At minimum, you will need an Associate of Applied Science in Medical Laboratory Technician Degree to even be considered for an open position. A Medical Laboratory Technician program should offer a well-rounded curriculum containing courses in medical terminology, basic human anatomy, serology, microbiology, hematology, and immunohematology.

You should also look for a program that allows you to gain hands-on experience in a laboratory setting, so you can apply what you’ve learned and perfect your skills. Look for a program that offers an externship so you can acquire practical experience that will make you a more attractive job candidate.

Once you’re hired as an MLT, you will likely receive some form of on-the-job training provided by your employer.

Becoming a Certified Laboratory Professional

In addition to earning your AAS Degree, you should also work to attain certification. The American Society of Clinical Pathology Board of Certification offers certified programs specifically designed for medical laboratory professionals. Becoming certified can increase your chances of finding employment, and may even be a requirement for some employers. Certification can also boost your earning potential and prove invaluable when seeking career advancement opportunities.

Essential Medical Laboratory Technician Characteristics

While earning an MLT degree is important, most successful MLTs also possess a number of character traits that enable them to perform at a high level. These include:

Attention to detail — Analyzing samples and conducting tests requires the ability to pay close attention to detail. You must be able to follow established testing procedures, without deviating in any way. Accuracy and precision are essential to the MLT role!
A “scientific mind” — MLTs are essentially scientists. The tests they perform on a daily basis are similar to the way scientists conduct experiments. Effective MLTs are naturally curious and are fascinated by how the human body functions. They often view their work as a form of problem solving, which they find to be extremely challenging.
Team-oriented approach: While you might think that an MLT spends the entire day holed up in a laboratory, interaction with people is a key part of MLT duties. In addition to communicating test findings to physicians, you’ll also need to work well on a team.
Fastidious nature — The expression “cleanliness is next to godliness” definitely applies to the MLT role. You’ll be working with bodily fluids and tissue samples — some of which may contain viruses and other pathogens. Keeping the entire laboratory clean and sterile is essential to avoid contamination and the possible spread of disease.

Pros and Cons of Being a Medical Laboratory Technician

Being a lab tech has its benefits and potential drawbacks. The advantages of being an MLT include:

  • The ability to gain entry into the rapidly growing medical profession without having to spend four years in college
  • Satisfaction derived from assisting physicians in the diagnostic and treatment process. You’ll also get to help sick people get well. You’ll be providing a valuable service to patients without having to interact with them on a regular basis.
  • Career advancement opportunities for those willing to continue their education
  • Excellent environment for anyone who enjoys working or being in a healthcare setting
  • The opportunity to specialize in areas such as immunohematology, cytotechnology, and histotechnology. Specialization can result in increased earning potential over the course of a career.

Medical lab technicians also experience possible disadvantages. These include:

  • A stressful job, especially when working and communicating with demanding physicians
  • Working with extremely hazardous bodily fluids — you’ll be constantly exposed to the risk of disease
  • Physical and mental demand, as well as the long hours of standing and intense concentration
  • An irregular schedule depending on the needs of your employer

The Difference Between a Medical Laboratory Technician and a Medical Technologist

The Medical Lab Technician is often confused with the similarly-titled Medical Technologist (MT). While they often perform the same testing functions, the level of education is the key difference. The MLT has typically earned an associate’s degree, but most MTs hold a Bachelor’s degree in Medical Technology or a related discipline.

The medical technician’s advanced knowledge often leads to more responsibilities. The MT may become involved in more complex testing procedures in areas such as clinical chemistry, genetics, and vitro in vitro fertilization. In many cases, the MT will supervise a staff of MLTs.

Other Places to Work

While many lab techs work in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other medical facilities, job opportunities are also available in other industries. Possibilities include medical research laboratories, blood banks, universities, and manufacturers of pharmaceutical and medicinal products.

What Is a Medical Laboratory Technician’s Salary?

Earning potential is an extremely important factor when considering any career. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean (average) Medical Laboratory Technician salary in the United States as of May, 2013 was $40,240. The median salary was $37,970. This means half of the MLTs in the U.S. earned more than this amount, while the other half earned less.

Additionally, 10 percent of MLTs earned less than $25, 210 per year, while another 10 percent earned more than $58,910 annually.

For most medical lab techs, where you choose to pursue employment is likely going to have a significant impact on your potential salary. MLTs in Rhode Island, for instance, earned an average salary of $57,700, which led the nation, followed by Alaska at $54,680. However, these states combined to employ only 880 of the 157,080 MLTs working in the U.S. The state with the highest number of MLTs was California — there were 16,000 workers earning an average salary of $45,340. Next in line was Texas, with 11,420 MLTs averaging $36,260 per year.

As far as the salary breakdown by metropolitan area, the Oakland-Fremont-Hayward, CA region had the highest average salary in the nation as of May, 2013. It had 1,120 MLTs earning a mean income of $58,380. With regard to large geographic regions, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA had the greatest number of MLTs at 5,180 — these workers earned an average annual salary of $42,790. The Philadelphia, PA area was next, with 4,480 MLTs averaging $41,410 per year.

The Job Outlook for Medical Lab Technicians

The good news for aspiring medical lab technicians is that the job outlook is extremely bright. According to BLS figures, the number of medical laboratory technicians in the U.S. is expected to increase by 30 percent from 2012 to 2022. In contrast, the number of jobs in all other industries is expected to increase by only 11 percent during the same time frame.

A variety of factors are expected to contribute to the increased MLT demand. These include:

  • The growing number of aging Americans requiring medical care
  • The increasing prevalence of medical conditions requiring diagnosis, such as cancer and adult onset diabetes
  • Changes in health care laws that make medical care accessible to more Americans
  • The continued development of new types of diagnostic tests

How Do You Know If an MLT Career Is Really the Best Choice for You?

Choosing a career is one of the most difficult and important decisions you’ll ever have to make. If you feel that an MLT career path is the best career option for you, there are some steps you can take to verify that you’re making the right choice. After all, you don’t want to waste time and money preparing for a career that ultimately leaves you feeling frustrated or unfulfilled. Learning as much as possible about medical lab technicians will help you make an informed decision:

  • Talk to someone who works in the field – If you know an MLT, ask if you can spend a few minutes discussing what it’s like to work in the field. Think of it as an informational interview and prepare a list of pertinent questions about the profession. Ask for the individual’s honest assessment of the job – the good as well as the bad. If you don’t know any MLTs, ask your family doctor or other medical professional to recommend a good candidate to approach.
  • Take advantage of your school’s resources – If you’re still in high school, talk to your guidance counselor about available options for exploring the MLT career path.
  • Read books and journals – Visit your local library to find books pertaining to the MLT profession. Reading MLT trade journals can also be a valuable source of information. Your informational interview subject may be able to recommend some suitable publications.
  • Search online jobsites – Even if you’re not ready to seek employment, reviewing the MLT listings on online jobsites can give you a good idea of the specific job duties. You’ll also learn what employers are looking for in applicants.
  • Take an assessment test – Taking this short quiz can help you determine if an MLT career is right for you. More detailed career assessment tests are also available.
  • Explore schools offering MLT programs – Schools like Vista College offer programs that lead to an Associate of Applied Science Degree as a Medical Laboratory Technician. The program can typically be completed in two years or less. Vista College will be happy to answer your questions about the MLT career and the various educational requirements.

The MLT Program at Vista College

Vista College, a leading provider of high quality of career preparation and enhancement programs for more than 25 years, offers a comprehensive Medical Lab Technician Associate of Applied Science Degree program that can be completed in as little as 18 months. Successful completion of the program will thoroughly prepare you to seek an entry-level position as an MLT. This program is offered at our El Paso, TX campus.

Our program consists of courses that provide the ideal combination of classroom instruction and hands-on application in a laboratory environment. You’ll also have the opportunity to participate in an externship that will give you real-world experience that employers in the healthcare industry covet. All courses are administered by knowledgeable instructors who bring extensive academic and practical experience to the teaching process. Services include job search assistance from our Career Services Department, as well as financial aid services.

If you would like to learn more about the Medical Laboratory Technician career path or have questions about our educational programs, contact a Vista College Admissions Representative for assistance.

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