If you like the idea of a career in health care but don't necessarily want to deal directly with patients, there are several possible alternatives. For example, technicians in the pathology lab save lives by helping doctors diagnose illnesses, but rarely see a patient. Instead, histology technicians and other laboratory technicians work with specimens of organ or muscle tissue, blood or other substances. Although it's a technical profession, the training and education requirements for histology technicians are relatively light.
The U.S. military and some large employers offer histology training programs in-house, but most new technicians come into the field after earning a two-year associate degree in laboratory science or histology from an accredited technical or community college. The curriculum is weighted toward the sciences, with a special focus on biology and organic chemistry. Technicians are taught medical terminology and ethics, anatomy, immunology, laboratory-oriented math and computer skills, and many related topics. Along with classroom instruction, most programs provide opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience in a working pathology lab.
Laboratory technicians don't need to be licensed in order to practice, but professional certification is available from the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). Certification is voluntary, though it might be a requirement for some employers or some specific jobs. Even when it isn't required, it's a smart idea. The ASCP's 2010 salary survey showed that certified histotechnologists earn higher wages, and certification tells potential employers that you're serious about your profession. Keeping your certification takes a commitment to continuing education, so your boss knows you're keeping your skills up to date.
Whether a histology technician works in a hospital, a research facility or a stand-alone laboratory, the job's requirements remain pretty similar. Technicians mostly work with samples of body tissues, or with other substances including blood, sputum or urine. They're all potential biohazards, so it's important to handle them according to your employer's standards and wear protective equipment when necessary. Histology technicians prepare these samples for examination, usually in the form of a microscope slide. That usually includes treating the samples with a preservative, applying them to the slide, and staining them for better visibility. Usually the slides are examined by a pathologist, though histotechnicians might perform some tests personally.
Trained or certified histology technicians can choose between a variety of workplaces. Most are employed in hospitals and stand-alone laboratories, but there are also job opportunities in physicians' offices, universities, and private or government-owned research labs. If you want to advance in your career, you can become a histology technologist by returning to school and earning a bachelor's degree. Technologists perform more sophisticated testing procedures, earn more, and get promoted faster. Alternatively, if you have the management and organization skills, you could take business or management courses and advance into health care administration.
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Histotechnician
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians
- American Society for Clinical Pathology: U.S. Certification
- Lab Medicine: American Society for Clinical Pathology’s 2010 Wage Survey of U.S. Clinical Laboratories
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment Statistics -- Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technicians
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