In a pathology lab, staff perform a variety of duties that provide physicians with crucial diagnostic information. Lab staff run tests on a huge variety of materials and identify information on things like blood type and genetic abnormalities. The staff of a laboratory includes medical lab technicians and medical technologists, who are sometimes also called medical laboratory scientists or clinical laboratory scientists. What is the difference between a medical lab technician and a medical lab technologist? We’ll break it down so you can determine which is right for you.
What Are Medical Laboratory Technicians?
Hospitals and doctors’ offices need lab technicians to function. They are essential to a medical team and, in many cases, proper patient care. Laboratory technicians work with physicians, lab managers, and often technologists to perform tests on a variety of specimens. The testing technicians do is necessary in diagnosing and treating patients. Lab technicians do not typically come into contact with patients at all, making them a behind-the-scenes part of a care team.
What Is a Medical Technologist?
Medical technologists perform careful analysis on blood, body fluids, and tissue to reveal chemical composition, count cells, and find out a patient’s blood type. A technologist prepares samples for analysis with the use of specialized instruments and automated equipment. They often run multiple, complex tests at once. Technologists also interpret the results of tests to aid in diagnosis.
Technologists frequently work with infectious samples, whether they work in a medical facility or an independent lab. Attention to detail is crucial in controlling infection and properly executing sterilization procedures. Technologists must be able to sustain a high level of attention through long or irregular shifts and act quickly during emergencies that require lab tests to confirm the course of treatment.
What Is the Difference Between a Medical Technologist and a Lab Technician?
There is more difference between medical lab technologist and technician careers than many people realize. Although they are related occupations with significant overlap, the education required and the job duties they perform are quite different. To become a technologist, you need a bachelor’s degree and a more extensive base of knowledge than a technician.
Medical technicians acquire, prepare, and analyze samples. They can perform routine laboratory procedures and some maintenance on instruments. Medical laboratory technologists are capable of doing the same things, but they also perform the all-important analysis physicians need. Medical technologists may also do research, and develop new methods of testing in research settings.
Medical Lab Technician and Technologist Duties
What do technicians and technologists do from day to day? These are some of the duties both perform on a regular basis:
- Look for and record normal or abnormal results of blood, urine, or tissue analysis.
- Finding the number of cells, blood type and blood group of a sample to determine compatibility with another patient’s blood.
- Work with complex scientific equipment like cell counters and microscopes.
- Use equipment that is automated or computerized to run more than one test at once.
- Record test results and accurately enter them into the patient’s chart.
- Communicate the results of tests with physicians or other medical personnel, when necessary.
A key difference between a medical lab technician vs. technologist is that technologists are able to run more complicated tests than technicians can. In some cases, a physician may give unique instructions that require specific steps in preparation. In these cases, a technologist may be needed to run a manual test, which technicians do not do. Technicians typically run tests that are automated to some degree. Additionally, a technologist may supervise and train technicians in their lab.
Another big difference between medical technologist and lab technician careers is specialization. Technologists in large laboratories usually pursue a specialization, whereas technicians are usually less likely to do so. Some of the possible specialties for a medical lab technologist include:
- Blood bank technologists:Also known as immunohematology technologists, these professionals collect blood samples and classify them. They also prepare the blood for transfusion.
- Clinical chemistry technologists:These technologists prepare samples and analyze hormone and chemical composition in multiple bodily fluids.
- Cytotechnologists:These professionals use their lab skills to check body tissues for signs of cancer.
- Immunology technologists: This specialty is crucial in studying disease, and involves analyzing the immune system’s response to attack.
- Microbiology technologists:These technologists study and analyze microorganisms like bacteria.
- Molecular biology technologists:These professionals study the structure of cell samples and run tests related to proteins, nucleic acids, and other components.
There are also a variety of specialties available to lab technicians, although they are fewer and less intensive. One example is histotechnicians. In this track, technicians prepare tissue samples for pathologists by cutting and staining them.
Both technologists and technicians opt to specialize after they have gained significant experience in one area. Alternatively, they can decide they want to work in another specialty and pursue the education or certification required to move to that track.
There isn’t much difference between medical lab technician vs. technologist careers when it comes to work schedules. Both typically work full-time, and the setting usually determines the type of shift they work. Places like hospitals that are open 24/7 have more shifts to fill, so a technician or technologist needs to be ready to work nights, weekends, and holidays when needed.
The trade-off for being willing to take sometimes undesirable shifts is exceptional flexibility. That flexibility can be especially invaluable for parents or those who intend to have children in the future.
Medical lab technicians and technologists work in the same settings. However, there are more possible workplaces than most people realize. In addition to hospital clinical laboratories and commercial or reference labs, techs and technologists are needed in:
- Public health labs
- The pharmaceutical and chemical industry
- Biotechnology companies
- Law enforcement and forensic labs
- Veterinary hospitals and clinics
- Research and education
- Blood donation and transplant centers
- Fertility clinics
- The food industry
- The cosmetics industry
In any of these settings, technicians and technologists work under a lab supervisor, administrator, or manager. Sometimes they are directly supervised by a physician, usually in specialties such as pathology.
Education and Training
Possibly the biggest difference between medical lab technician and technologist tracks is the amount of education required. It takes significantly longer to become a technologist than it does to become a technician.
An entry-level technologist job almost always requires a bachelor’s degree, meaning those who aspire to this career typically need a four-year education. The desired bachelor’s degrees are in medical technology or sometimes life sciences. A medical technology degree is preferred as it is more specialized than a life sciences program.
Medical lab technology degree programs are made up of courses in statistics, math, biology, chemistry, and clinical conduct. They also focus on softer skills technologists need, like management and education. The names for these programs differ, as do the degrees awarded. One common name to look for is a “medical laboratory scientist” degree.
Medical lab technicians typically obtain an associate’s degree in a clinical lab science program. For those who have a different degree in the medical field, such as nurses, some hospitals provide certification programs that take only one year. More commonly, people who want to become lab technicians complete a program at a vocational or technical school.
High school students who want to go straight into a lab technician program should focus on math, chemistry, and biology to best prepare themselves for the coursework.
Licensing, Certifications, and Registration
There is no set rule for the type of licensing, certification, or registration of lab personnel. The requirements vary from state to state. The most common regulation is that a technician or technologist possesses the appropriate degree and passes an exam. To find out what your state’s requirements are, look for information from the department of health or occupational licensing board.
Many states and employers require medical laboratory technicians and technologists to obtain a certification before receiving a license. Entry-level positions typically require general certification, and technicians or technologists can also obtain a certification for a specialty area.
While certification is not always required to become a technician or technologist, getting certified gives candidates an edge over competitors who don’t have any certifications. When evaluating a certified candidate and one without certification, employers will almost always choose the certified candidate.
- American Medical Technologists: The AMToffers licensing for medical technologists that want to prove their ability to apply their knowledge in a real laboratory setting. To earn the license, candidates must have a bachelor’s degree, fulfill experience requirements, and pass a test. License holders must go through a renewal process every three years to keep this credential.
- American Society for Clinical Pathology: The ASCP offers multiple credentials for both lab technicians and technologists. The requirements vary for each type of credential. One notable advantage of the ASCP is the ability to pursue international credentialing in addition to U.S. certification.
Personality and Interests
What personality types are best suited to medical lab tech or technologist jobs? It helps to think about personality and interests in the context of the Holland Code, a framework designed to help people determine what vocations they are suited to. The interest areas most important for lab technician and technologist careers are Building, Thinking, and Organizing.
The Building interest indicates you are capable of working with tools and machines, and like fixing or making things. The Thinking area indicates interest in research, investigation, and understanding the way things work. The Organization area is related to working with information in ordered systems. Interest in any or all of these three areas means you may be well-suited to either a lab technician or technologist career. Additionally, you need the following qualities to succeed:
- Ability to use technology: You will be working closely with complicated equipment and software on a daily basis.
- Attention to detail: There is little room for error when conducting tests that could save a patient’s life. You will have to follow exact instructions and report accurately to succeed.
- Manual dexterity: Lab technicians and technologists are constantly working with small instruments, so an unsteady hand can cause issues on the job.
- Physical stamina:Collecting samples can mean being on your feet for several hours at a stretch, and performing demanding actions like moving patients with disabilities into the right position.
While the above qualities and the technical skills learned in school are essential, medical lab technicians and technologists also need the following soft skills to excel at their jobs.
- Active listening: You will need excellent listening skills to effectively communicate with medical personnel and patients each day.
- Problem solving: Analyzing samples for abnormalities requires the ability to spot problems and solve them efficiently.
- Critical thinking:Hand in hand with problem solving, critical thinking is an essential skill in choosing the right option based on the desired outcome.
- Reading comprehension:Doctors’ written instructions can often be dense and complex, and being able to understand them is key to accurate testing.
Employment of lab technicians and technologists is expected to rise 11 percent between 2018 and 2028, which is more than double the 5 percent expected for all occupations. Part of the driving force behind this growth is the aging of the baby boomer population. As they grow older, these individuals will experience a growing need for diagnoses of medical conditions. Illnesses like cancer and diabetes require lab procedures to be effectively diagnosed, making medical laboratory technicians and technologists essential for treatment.
As medical technology advances, there will likely be new forms of testing, increasing the need for technicians and technologists to fill new specialties. If you are interested in a job that embraces continuous innovation, either of these careers may be for you.
Succeed With Vista College
If you’re ready for a new career and are interested in a stable, well-paid position in healthcare, Vista College offers a Medical Laboratory Technician associate degree that can get you where you want to go. Our program will get you ready to look for a medical lab technician role in just 18 months. The robust curriculum focuses on hands-on lab sessions that allow you to learn by doing, preparing you to succeed from day one.
After completing the program, you will have all the knowledge you need to take the AMT Medical Laboratory Technician exam and earn the certification you need to find a job you love. To learn more about our admissions process, call 1-866-442-4197 or request info online.