Medical Lab Scientist Career Guide

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Medical Lab Scientist

What Is a Medical Lab Scientist?

Laboratory technologists, or lab scientists, are medical professionals who work behind the scenes in a lab, processing biological specimens to aid in diagnosing and treating a wide range of medical conditions. Lab work lays the foundation for many lifesaving treatments, interventions, and research. Accurate and prompt test results are vital for the healthcare team to provide quality patient care.

Lab technologists are also called:

  • Medical lab scientists
  • Clinical lab scientists
  • Medical lab technologists
  • Clinical lab technologists

Lab technologists and lab technicians are sometimes thought to be the same, but there is a significant difference. A laboratory technologist has earned a bachelor’s degree in a laboratory science field. A laboratory technician has earned an associate’s degree or a certificate in laboratory science.

While these two careers share notable similarities and differences, their names are both often shortened to “lab tech.” For the purposes of this article and to appropriately denote the difference, we will not shorten the title of lab technologist title to “tech.”

What Does a Medical Lab Scientist Do?

When a physician orders a test for their patient, a nurse or phlebotomist will collect the sample. These samples are typically bodily fluids. They can be:

  • Blood
  • Urine
  • Stool
  • Cerebrospinal fluid
  • Bone Marrow
  • Tissue- such as a sample from an infection or biopsy site.

After the sample is collected, lab technologists prepare or process it for testing. Next, they perform the ordered test and report the results to a physician or healthcare provider for further diagnosis and treatment.

Lab technologists perform a vast array of medical tests. Some of these highly precise tests are more complex, precise, or manual in nature. In addition to this, they also perform automated tests and are responsible for the calibration, cleaning, and maintenance of lab equipment.

A typical day as a lab technologist can include:

  • Operating and maintaining high-precision scientific equipment such as cell counters and microscopes.
  • Using computerized and automated equipment to run different tests at the same time.
  • Analyzing blood and bodily fluids.
  • Cross-matching blood for transfusion.
  • Recording test results and other data in the patient’s medical record.
  • Discussing urgent or significant results promptly with the patient’s physician or healthcare team.
  • Following quality assurance protocols to ensure the accuracy of results.
  • Supervising the work of laboratory assistants and laboratory technicians.

In small laboratories, medical lab scientists will run many different types of tests throughout the day. In larger laboratories, they will often specialize in a particular area of the laboratory.

How Do You Become a Medical Lab Scientist?

Your journey to becoming a lab technologist begins with a high school diploma. From there, you will need to complete a bachelor's degree in medical laboratory science.

Here are some tips to consider when deciding on a program:

  • Ensure the degree program you choose is an accredited program verified by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences or NAACLS.
  • A bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science typically takes four years to obtain and allows you the greatest opportunities for advancement and leadership positions.
  • Different employers may require specific certificates, degrees, certifications, or experience. If you know you are interested in a specific type of medical lab science, it’s never too early to begin researching what potential employers require.
  • Some states require lab technologists to become licensed. Currently, ten states require this. See the American Society for Clinical Lab Sciences or the ASCLS website for more information.

FAQs About Medical Lab Scientists

What skills does a Medical Lab Scientist need?

A lab technologist or lab scientist must be able to perform tests safely and accurately each time. Becoming familiar with the types of laboratory equipment used to perform tests and procedures is essential. Necessary skills for lab scientists and technologists include:

  • Attention to detail: Proper protocols and procedures must be followed perfectly and in order for test results to be accurate.
  • Comfort with technology: Lab scientists and technologists must fully understand the laboratory equipment they are using.
  • Dexterity: Lab scientists and technologists work closely with bodily fluids, needles, and other precision equipment. They must be able to handle all of them effectively and follow proper procedures to prevent the infection and spread of blood-borne and other pathogens.
  • Strong scientific background: Lab scientists and technologists need a solid background in chemistry, biology, anatomy, and medical terminology.

Work Settings For a Medical Lab Scientist

Wherever laboratory tests are done, lab technologists are needed and in demand. Most lab technologists work full-time hours, but some can work part-time.  Some laboratories, such as those inside hospitals, must run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Here are some of the places medical lab technologists work:

  • Hospitals
  • Diagnostic laboratories
  • Urgent care centers
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Physician offices
  • Research laboratories

Common Cases a Medical Lab Scientist Encounters

Lab technologists or lab scientists test blood, urine, and other tissue samples for many medical diagnoses and health problems. These cases they encounter can include:

  • Reviewing cell counts to aid in diagnosing cancers such as leukemia. Cell counts also diagnose anemia and other blood disorders.
  • Testing blood for glucose, which aids in the diagnosis of diabetes.
  • Testing blood for cholesterol and other cardiac markers that can signal cardiovascular disease.
  • Monitoring electrolyte levels.
  • Reviewing and testing samples for bacteria and other infections.
  • Testing samples for the presence of drugs.
  • Running tests on or cross-matching blood to ensure it’s a good match for a transfusion.

How To Advance Your Career as a Medical Lab Scientist?

After becoming a lab technologist, you may choose to continue to grow and advance in your career. Some lab technologists decide to advance their careers by specializing in a specific area of laboratory science.

Work experience, additional education, and national certification can pave the way to advance your career or specialize in one area. Areas to specialize in include:

Immunology technologist- Specialize in the immune system and how it reacts to foreign substances.

Cytotechnologist - Examine body cells under a microscope to look for cancerous growth.

Blood bank technologist- Classify blood by type and carefully prepare it for lifesaving blood transfusions.

Molecular biology technologist- Perform molecular diagnostics and conduct complex nucleic acid and protein tests on cell samples.

Clinical chemistry technologist- Examine and analyze the hormones and chemicals in body fluids.

Microbiology technologist- Examine bacteria or other microorganisms.

Many medical lab scientists choose to advance their careers in other ways. With a degree and clinical experience, many lab technologists decide to specialize in education, leadership, management, or quality control.

Education Requirements & Helpful Certifications for a Medical Lab Scientist

Lab technologists need a college degree or certification. They typically hold a bachelor’s degree in clinical laboratory science or a similar area.

A laboratory scientist’s education includes both classroom work and clinical training. You will have hands-on training in a lab in addition to classes in chemistry, biology, microbiology, and statistics. No matter what path you choose, options abound!

A national certification is a great way to show your dedication to medical lab science. It can also help advance your career.

Many technologists start with a Medical Lab Sciences (MLS) Certification through the American Society of Clinical Pathology or ASCP. This certification helps you stand out as an expert in your field and opens up many professional and employment opportunities.

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