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Author Info

Pat Olson
Medical Technologist Instructor
The University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM

Judy Hendricks
Medical Technologist

What is a medical technologist?

Medical technology is concerned with laboratory tests used in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. These tests and analyses are performed by a medical technologist (MT) or a medical laboratory technician (MLT). A medical technologist is knowledgeable in all areas of clinical laboratory work and is able to perform all routine procedures as well as specialized tests requiring more complex techniques. The MT makes independent decisions concerning the quality of laboratory results. Responsibilities often include education of peers, students, and subordinates; research and development of new techniques; and laboratory supervision. The MLT performs most routine laboratory procedures under the supervision of a medical technologist.

What makes a good medical technologist?

The medical technologist (and MLT) must possess the ability to work well with people and the desire to be of service to others. She must demonstrate the highest degree of integrity—honesty, confidentiality, and responsibility—in all areas of her professional and private life. Working under stress while maintaining manual dexterity and logical thinking is essential. Accurate and precise laboratory results require neatness, a high degree of persistence, and a capacity for patient, thorough effort. An interest in and an aptitude for science and mathematics are also helpful.

A research and development (R&D) medical technologist must be creative and have a strong science background. Medical product development can be very challenging and exciting. To become an R&D scientist, one can have a B.S., M.S., or Ph.D. degree in any area of science.

What is life as a medical technologist like?

Few people encounter a medical technologist unless they are hospitalized, and even then they may not realize that the blood specimen taken in the early morning is sent to the laboratory where a technologist or technician analyzes it to help monitor conditions in many parts of the body. By treating the sample in various ways to measure the constituents, a technologist aids the physician in assessing the functions of vital organs and their responses to therapy.

Medical technology is a rapidly advancing and changing field in which automated equipment such as electronic cell counters, computers, and self-regulating chemical analyzers have joined the test tube, the centrifuge, and the microscope as laboratory tools. Technologists must not only master the use of these instruments but also handle their routine maintenance in order to forestall critical work stoppages. They must continually monitor the quality of the performance of these tools, or the results obtained will be incorrect.

Most MTs and MLTs specialize by working in one of several diverse departments such as blood banking, chemistry, hematology, microbiology, or serology. They are among the physician’s most valuable assistants in problem-solving, tracking down the causes of disease, checking the effect of antibodies on various microbes, exploring the hormonal status of sterile women, testing for pregnancy, or measuring the clotting capacity of blood. Some technologists become supervisors. They are responsible for orienting new employees, instructing trainees, managing supplies, monitoring work quality, maintaining records, and keeping laboratory procedures up to date.

A research scientist in the field of medical technology creates medical products to help improve health care. She will first research a known problem in a hospital, such as a need for a product that will provide more rapid test results or possibly a new instrument to perform a test or procedure quickly and accurately. Once the problem is identified, a team will develop and test many designs to try to solve the problem. The resulting product will need to work effectively in many types of conditions; it must be easy to use and have a long shelf life. It is likely to take many years to develop a new medical product.

How do I become a medical technologist?

A medical technologist needs a bachelor’s degree in a laboratory science or a related area; the curriculum includes structured clinical training in medical technology in a hospital laboratory. Academic programs of universities vary so widely that no typical course outline can be given. Nevertheless, certification requires that courses prior to clinical training include 16 hours of chemistry (including organic and/or biochemistry), 16 hours of biological science (including microbiology and immunology), and one course in college-level mathematics. Training programs vary in length and structure; most are a year long (50 weeks, 40 hours per week) and replace the fourth year of college or are taken after the B.S. degree is earned. Upon completing training, the graduate is eligible to take state or national certifying examinations given by agencies such as the Board of Registry (American Society of Clinical Pathologists) and the National Certification Agency of Medical Laboratory Personnel.

To undertake such a university curriculum, the student should have taken high school biology, chemistry, and mathematics through trigonometry, with physics as an optional but useful addition.

A medical laboratory technician must complete an associate degree curriculum in laboratory science, including a structured training program in all areas of the clinical laboratory; such a degree program is usually given by community colleges. The graduate takes state or national certifying examinations at the MLT level.

What/where are the jobs?

In their first jobs, most technologists and technicians work in hospital laboratories; nevertheless, positions are available in other health-related or scientific areas. Laboratory professionals may also work in private or industrial laboratories, in public health agencies, in health maintenance organizations, in research or teaching institutions, or in medical programs such as the Peace Corps, VISTA, or Project Hope. Availability of jobs other than in hospitals depends on geographic location, job description, and qualifications. The job outlook is very good and will continue to be good, although opportunities vary among cities and states. Locations with the greatest demand include inner-city facilities and rural areas. Like the job market, salaries vary with location, education, experience, and responsibilities.