Accurately diagnosing illnesses is one of the hardest parts of what doctors have to do, and they rely on a wide variety of technical staff to provide some help. For example, doctors send samples of blood, tissues, urine or other substances to the pathology lab for testing. The laboratory's technicians perform a variety of testing procedures themselves, or prepare the samples for testing by more highly-skilled colleagues. It's a responsible career, and technicians exercise several different skills in a normal day.
Much of a laboratory technician's day is spent handling specimens and preparing them for testing. Most specimens are biohazards, and technicians have to store and prepare them according to strict guidelines to minimize the risk of illness or contamination. Samples can be treated in a number of ways: Some have to be cultured in a sterile Petri dish, to check for infection. Others must be dissolved or treated with chemicals and preservatives. Mostly, they're turned into slides for viewing under the microscope, which means they have to be sliced razor-thin, tinted with a stain for better visibility, and protected with a preservative.
Often, the specimens a technician prepares will be passed along to a pathologist or a specialized technologist for examination. However, there are many tests a technician can perform independently. These are usually routine tests such as blood typing, or examining stool samples for parasites. They can also perform drug tests on urine or blood samples, either to detect substance abuse or to determine how effectively the patient's body is absorbing a medication.
Laboratory technicians have other duties, aside from preparing samples and performing tests. They're often responsible for retrieving samples from other departments, and sometimes they run samples directly from an operating room to the pathologist during a surgical procedure. Technicians are largely responsible for the cleaning, sanitation and sterilization of the laboratory itself, and the instruments and equipment after usage. In some labs they also perform many of the routine administrative duties, including record-keeping and ordering supplies.
Technicians typically enter the field with a two-year associate degree in laboratory science. Some large hospitals and standalone laboratories operate comparable training programs in-house, and so does the U.S. military. Technicians work in hospitals, independent pathology labs, research facilities, universities or pharmaceutical companies, depending on their talents and ambition. Lab techs with good organizational and management skills can become supervisors. Ambitious technicians can advance into management by taking a degree in health care administration, business or management; or they can become technologists by upgrading to a bachelor's degree in laboratory science.
- Explore Health Careers: Clinical Laboratory Technologist/Technician
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory: Clinical Laboratory Technician/Medical Laboratory Technician
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.