There are about 329,000 clinical laboratory technologists and technicians working in the United States. Job growth statistics suggest that over the next decade this occupation will grow by 14%, which is slightly above average for all types of work.
Using cell counters, high powered microscopes and other sensitive equipment, clinical laboratory technologists and technicians study cells, blood and other bodily fluids for microorganisms such as parasites or bacteria; determine the chemical structure of fluids; look for transfusion matches; and determine how well a patient is responding to medical treatment by measuring the amount of drugs in blood. Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians also examine cells in blood and other fluids for abnormality.
Once tests have been completed, clinical laboratory technologists and technicians evaluate the results for the physician. The work has changed considerably with computer technology, becoming investigative and less hands-on. Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians are given a range of tasks, which are dependent upon their experience and level of education.
The work technologists do is generally more involved than that of technicians. Clinical laboratory technologists tend to complex biological, bacteriological, chemical, hematological, and microscopic tests; and culturing bodily fluids and tissue samples to ascertain the existence of parasites, bacteria, and other microorganisms. Technologists also evaluate test results such as blood and fluid samples to determine chemical content or density of blood glucose or cholesterol. They are responsible for typing blood samples for transfusions and for cross matching them as well. They create, oversee and modify procedures to guarantee test accuracy. In some cases, a technologist may supervise one or more technicians. Some technologists supervise clinical laboratory technicians. Clinical laboratory technologists who work in smaller laboratories are generalists, able to perform a range of tests. Many technologists working in big laboratories are specialists. For example, clinical chemistry technologists evaluate the hormonal and chemical content of body fluids, while microbiology technologists focus entirely on microorganisms. Blood bank technologists collect blood samples, determine type and prepare it for transfusions. How the immune system responds to foreign bodies is the work of immunology technologists. Cell slides are prepared and studied microscopically by cytotechnologists for potentially cancerous growths. Protein and nucleic acid cell testing is undertaken by molecular biology technologists.
Technicians, on the other hand, are given simpler tasks and procedures. Among their tasks are sample preparation, working with automated analyzers, or following directives to complete manual tests. Clinical laboratory technicians are typically supervised by one or more technologists or laboratory managers. Some technicians are generalists while others might specialize. For example, blood samples are collected by phlebotomists, while specimens are cut and stained for the pathologist’s examination by histotechnicians.
Clinical laboratory personnel work with specimens containing contagions. When safety procedures designed for infection control and sterilization are followed, the work environment is generally safe. Some laboratories require technologists and technicians wear protective clothing. Most laboratories are well-lit, clean and organized. There may be fumes from specimens, reagents and solutions. Large independent labs or hospitals often operate around the clock; their technologists and technicians are less likely to have a set schedule than those working in a smaller facility. Some laboratory workers are put on call once or more per week, in the event of emergencies.
The Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act mandates that technologists who perform complex tests must have completed at least an accredited associate program; however, most employers prefer a bachelor’s degree in one of the life sciences or medical technology. Technicians typically have completed an associate degree or certificate program. Medical technology bachelor’s programs include coursework in biology, chemistry, microbiology, mathematics and statistics, and specialized courses. It is unusual, but possible, for technicians to be entirely trained on the job.
The National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) has accredited about 480 programs for laboratory technologists and technicians, cytogenetic technologists, histotechnologists, histotechnicians, and diagnostic molecular scientists, as well as 60 programs in phlebotomy and clinical assisting. Other organizations that certify college and university programs include the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools.
Laboratory workers are not required to be licensed or registered in all states; regulations depend upon area of specialization. In most cases, licensing requires completion of a bachelor’s degree as well as passing an examination.
Technologists and technicians need to be competent problem solvers, have good manual dexterity, normal color vision and work well under pressure. Attention to detail is vital; minute differences in test results can alter a diagnosis. Familiarity with computer programs and systems is also essential.
For technicians, advancement comes through work experience and additional education required in order to become technicians. Technologists might be promoted to supervisory or managerial positions in the laboratory, become chief laboratory technologists or hospital laboratory managers. To become a laboratory director requires a doctoral degree. Other types of career advancement include working in the development, marketing and sales of lab equipment, or home diagnostic testing kits.
The median annual salary for medical and clinical laboratory technologists is around $54,000. Midrange salaries are between $45,000 and $64,000. The highest 10% earn more than $75,000.