Medical laboratory technicians (MLT), also known as clinical laboratory technicians, are the backbone of today's medical system, as almost all diagnosis is based on an analysis of biochemistry. As such, the demand for individuals skilled in medical laboratory science in the United States is high. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs in this field is 335,500, and this job number is expected to grow by 11% between 2020 and 2030.
What is a Medical Lab Technician?
Certified laboratory technicians, also known as lab techs, support doctors and other health care staff in diagnosing and healing diseases. They often work under the supervision of a medical technologist. Some of their responsibilities include:
Collecting body fluids, tissues, and other biological materials
Analyzing lab test results
Working with and maintaining medical laboratory equipment
Preparing slides and tissue samples for computer testing
The position requires an understanding of biochemistry, math, and medical laboratory technology and often requires passing a certification program or completing an associate’s degree program.
Clinical Laboratory Science Specialties
The duties of a lab technician may vary depending if the position is in a hospital or private medical laboratory.
Areas of specialty in clinical laboratory science include chemistry, hematology, immunology, and microbiology.
A medical assistant to a chemist analyzes nutrition, hormones, or the presence of drugs and pathogens in blood or tissue samples.
A lab assistant to a hematologist conducts tests on blood cells to detect blood diseases such as HIV, anemia, or leukemia.
A lab tech to an immunohematologist runs tests to try and match one blood type to another or detect abnormal antibodies or allergens.
A lab assistant to a microbiologist detects the presence of microscopic organisms such as bacteria, algae, and fungi.
Keep in mind that a clinical laboratory technician might be practicing one or more of these specialties while on the job, depending on the size of the medical clinic, and whether or not it is situated inside a hospital.
Medical Laboratory Technicians typically enter the profession with either an associate or a diploma. The coursework for an MLT diploma or degree will depend on the exact laboratory discipline, but will address the theoretical and practical knowledge necessary to be a medical laboratory technician.
Depending on the state, MLTs must also obtain a license before they can work. In California, for example, MLTs are required to either complete a training program or have 3 years of on-the-job-experience at a minimum. They must also be certified by organizations approved by the Department of Public Health, such as the American Association of Bioanalysts (AAB) or the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP).
How to Become A Medical Laboratory Technician: A Step-By-Step Guide
Here are the basic steps needed to embark on a career as a medical laboratory technician.
Step 1 - Obtain A High School Diploma
The first step to embarking on a career as a medical lab technician is to get a high school diploma. Suggested courses to help prepare for later success are chemistry, biology and math.
Step 2 - Earn An Associate Degree or Lab Technician Certificate
Most medical lab technicians enter the field after getting a 2-year clinical lab technician or medical lab technician associate degree. However, some MLTs enter the field after completing a program offered through the Armed forces or a vocational school. Programs in laboratory technology combine theory with simulated lab instruction to prepare for a job in a real laboratory where just one mistake can be life-threatening to a patient. Course studies typically include bacteriology, microbiology, hematology, laboratory procedures, and laboratory safety.
Step 3 - Get Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT) Certification
Certification is not mandatory in most states, but an AAB Certification or ASCP Certification combined with college or university training improves job prospects. An ASCP credential can be acquired at the American Society for Clinical Pathology and the AAB at the American Association of Bioanalysts.
Completion of a 50-week military lab tech training program
An exam tests the applicant’s knowledge of hematology, chemistry, microbiology, and immunology.
Step 4 - Get A Lab Technician Position
After graduating from a medical laboratory technician program, aspiring lab techs may start applying for a position in the clinical laboratory science field. The places most likely to hire lab technicians are hospitals, medical labs, and physicians' offices.
Step 5 - Get Promoted
A bachelor's degree, a license (if required), and some practical experience is the key to getting hired at a lab. Many medical laboratory technicians move up the career ladder to be medical laboratory technologists. A certificate or graduate degree in a relevant subject, such as administration, business management, biological sciences, or medical technology, can also lead to a promotion in a hospital or clinic. If you have a marketing or bachelor's degree in science, it is useful to acquire a medical marketing job, a pharmaceutical company, or a position with a manufacturer of laboratory equipment.
Related Lab Technician Careers
Medical laboratory technicians don't always work in hospitals, clinics, or doctor's offices. They are also in demand in some related fields which employ lab technicians.
Veterinary Laboratory Technician
One position to consider is that of a veterinary lab technician, which requires that you work in an animal clinic or animal hospital under the supervision of a veteran. The job is very similar to working in a regular hospital, only you are responsible for testing and handling the samples from animals. Like in a hospital for humans, it is also your responsibility to keep the lab facilities clean.
Biological Laboratory Technician
Working in the field of biochemistry as a biological lab assistant can be a very interesting as well as dangerous position. Biological technicians assist with biological-specific lab procedures, including testing for communicative diseases. Many biotech assistants work in hospitals or private research facilities.
Chemical Laboratory Technicians
Chemical laboratory technicians work primarily with chemists. Sometimes these positions are available at pharmaceutical companies. Chemistry lab techs work with chemists, studying chemicals and their reactions. They prepare slides, assist with testing methods and write reports.
Here are some short answers to becoming a medical lab technician:
How long do you have to attend school to be a medical laboratory technician?
Depending on where you are located, you can land a job with just 2 years of training at a local college.
How easy is it for phlebotomists to advance their careers and become medical laboratory technicians?
Phlebotomists are specialists in withdrawing blood. To become a medical laboratory technician, they must attend a 6 month long program through the National Phlebotomy Association (NPA) or a similar course.
Obtaining a job in the field of clinical laboratory science is not that difficult for those with an aptitude for Math and Science. It is particularly suited for those who enjoy working in a clinical situation. In some areas of the United States, all that is needed to obtain a position as a medical laboratory technician is a high school diploma and participation in a 2-year medical laboratory technician program. In other states, a job in medical laboratory science may require certification such as an AAB Certification or ASCP Certification. Both certifications assure an employer an application theoretical and practical training working in a simulated laboratory situation. Finally, the more courses and qualifications an aspiring lab tech has, the better his or her resume will look to an employer in the field of medical laboratory science.
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Program outcomes may vary depending on each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guranteed.