Ask the medical technologist

So, who’s never heard of a medical technologist? Who’s heard of one but has no clue what they do? Who knows what they do but has some questions?

I’m relatively new to the field, and there are other medical techs on the board, so I extend the offer for them to pop in and respond with their opinions as well, considering their points of view are likely to be very different.

My background: Studied in Canada, passed both the Canadian and American certification exams (CSMLS and ASCP, respectively), and got a job in a busy hospital blood bank in Montreal. Then I found work here in Maryland and came over with a work visa, and I’m now in a smaller community hospital working as an evening shift generalist. That means I rotate between hematology, biochemistry, microbiology, and blood bank, depending on the week and the workload.

So, what would you like to know about the dark underground culture (ha!) of the lab techs?

What exactly do you do? What’s a typical workday like?

Hi there - I used to be an RT, but have been out of the field for years now. I’m curious about the differences between working in the Canadian and US healthcare fields. What have you seen of the strengths and weaknesses of both systems?

Which area do you like working in best? I think if I’d stayed in the game, I would have worked towards being an immunohematologist - I loved doing crossmatches and that kind of thing. Genetics have always been an interest of mine.

Does it bug you when people call you a nurse? How about vampire? :smiley:

I start the MLT program in May, after a very brief stint last year (had to put it off).

I really want to do micro specifically, and dread getting stuck with blood bank or urinalysis or something. Is it going to be difficult to find work just doing micro? Of course I know it depends on a billion things, just wondering if there’s a general consensus.

Moved from IMHO to MPSIMS.

My typical workday involves getting to the lab and taking a report from the previous shift - there’s a half hour overlap between shifts so we can get up to speed on any issues with the analyzers, problem specimens, anything we might need to know.

Then it depends on the station I’m working. If it’s hematology, I run controls on my analyzer, then take all the lavender-top tubes that come to my bench, check them for clots, and put them on the analyzer. Then as the results print out, I check them to see if anything looks abnormal. If I don’t like what I see, I’ll repeat the specimen, and I’ll check if the patient has a previous result that’s similar to what I’m seeing. If it meets criteria for a slide review, I’ll take the tube and make a smear on a glass slide so I can stain it and have a look under the microscope. Usually this is when we doubt the differential cell count off the analyzer (how many of each type of white blood cell are there), or if the platelet count is low and we need to confirm that it’s not because they’re all clumped up. So I’ll take the slide and look at it, doing a manual differential count, and entering it into the computer. If anything is a panic value, I’ll call the patient’s nurse with the info so they can deal with it quickly.

If I’m at chemistry, I run controls on the analyzers and then stay at what we call “command central”, where there are screens showing what’s happening with each analyzer, and the results print out as the tests are completed. There’s an automated track system in our lab, so I mostly work just with the computer and the analyzers. When a number makes no sense, I have to find out what’s wrong. Is it mislabeled? Is something interfering? Did the instrument hit a bubble and not suck up enough specimen? I have to take the specimen, and either repeat tests, dilute them to confirm high values, that sort of thing.

I’ll go over the other stuff in a little while - keep the questions coming and I’ll do my best to get back and answer them all.

Ok, back for more…

Blood banking is my favorite area by far, like you, featherlou. In the blood bank, we test blood types and look for unexpected antibodies that could cause a transfusion reaction if we gave the patient a blood transfusion. In that area of the lab, we crossmatch units of blood for surgery, bleeding patients, anyone who needs it. We also thaw out units of plasma, and store and give out platelets as needed. It’s a stressful area of the lab, because a mistake can kill a patient, but I like the work very much. When a patient has an antibody, it’s like a puzzle to identify which antibody is present, and I love the feeling of victory when I solve it.

In my lab, the urinalysis bench is combined with the microbiology section, for the evening shift. I dip a test strip into the urine specimens and let an analyzer read the colors that appear, telling me if there’s blood, or bacteria, or sugar in the urine, or anything else that shouldn’t be there. Then I confirm everything under a microscope. And as time permits, I take microbiology specimens to the back and plate them out under the biological safety cabinet - stool, urine, sputum, body fluids, and swabs from wounds, mostly. I put them into the right incubators and then the day shift looks at them the next day.

Br’er Lapin, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find a micro-only job, if it’s what you’re looking for. Often a hospital will only have day shift micro, though, and rarely evening, so there are fewer jobs than if you were looking at being a generalist. But although most labs are edging towards a more generalist-type lab, micro and the blood bank seem to usually exist as separate entities, with different management and different atmospheres than the core lab.
featherlou** - Can’t say that I’ve noticed very much difference between healthcare here and back home in Canada, at least not from the lab point of view. The instrumentation is the same, the management of the lab is about the same, and the way the rest of the hospital leaves us in our basement dungeon and forgets about us is exactly the same. :slight_smile: Fewer outpatients for phlebotomy, though, in this hospital, probably because of the existence of places like Quest where you can go for your blood tests. Back home most people would come to the hospital for blood tests, and our outpatient area could see up to 300 patients a day. Here, we get 20 on a busy day.

People never call me “nurse”, I suppose because I refuse to wear scrubs. I hate the things. I have my lab coat but I never wear it outside the lab. I guess people who see me in the hallways at night must think I’m someone from HR who likes to work late.

That’s what I liked, too. Now I just have to settle for forensic accounting. :slight_smile:

Do shows like House make you yell at the tv? Apparently I get a little excited by all the doctors pretending to do their own lab work, and getting test results like blood cultures done in half an hour. Like lab techs would let hamhanded doctors get anywhere near their expensive, finely-calibrated lab equipment, or that doctors would draw their own blood!

Just wanted to contribute that if you’re thinking about a med tech degree, you’ll be set for life for jobs. They’re in high demand right now, and relatively short supply. At least around here. I do sort of a med tech job now, though my degree is in microbiology, and we’re desperate for people. I know it’s similar in a lot of the country.

I saw an episode of House where the doctors were running tests (hah!) on a piece of equipment that I use all the time. The good news was that the equipment and even its software was authentic. The only problem was that the actor was typing while the monitor showed a screen where you can only use a mouse. But that’s just nitpicking on my part.

What kind of money can you make in this field? How much school was required?

I am going to kick this thread’s ass in a couple days. (no energy now)

For now I’m just subscribing.


Smeghead where is ‘around here’?

Also, any techs need a job? I’ve got 2 up here. ~$73K to start plus call.

But then they have to live in Iqaluit. :wink:

Good money for two years of school as you can see from Nunavut Boy’s jobs. Our local program at SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology), after which you write a national certification exam to become a Registered Technologist (which is what I was). The drawbacks - you’ll probably work shiftwork for a long time, and probably have to do phlebotomy at least for a few years (drawing blood). I hated shiftwork, and I hated phlebotomy - I probably should have done more research before becoming a lab tech. :smiley:

You can also get any number of four year degrees to work in labs. You should be science/biology oriented to get into this field - I excelled in chemistry and biology in high school, and it helped immensely. Being detail-oriented and able to work at an extremely high level of quality under great pressure are also mandatory (three doctors demanding stat results on extremely sick patients while your analyzer is taking a shit and giving you crap control results at 3 in the morning is not all that unusual).

Also, IIRC, in the US a 4 year degree is required to be a lab technologist. In fact, in most countries it is required.

2 years of school will get you an MLT, 4 years will get you an MT. The biggest difference seems to be who gets to be a supervisor. As far as bench work goes, MTs and MLTs are equivalent from my experience. An MT degree is also a door for research, especially Lab Medicine-related research labs.

Just another MT checking in.

Vlad/Igor, BS MT(ASCP)

Thanks for the answer, Antigen.

More questions:

Is there any talk of the average salary in the field going up any in the future due to the shortage of people? Maybe? A girl can dream, right? :slight_smile:

How often do you run across some really crazy obscure bacteria/fungus/whatever that totally stumps you for a while? I think that would be the sort of thing that will excite me and be really fun trying to figure out what the hell it is.

I’m starting the MLT program while in the middle of a biology BS, and I was actually going to wait until next year to go back to the MLT program as I wanted get some more bio classes out of the way. However, a few days ago the head of the department at my school actually called me almost begging me to come back this year. I was getting a little unsure if this is what I actually wanted to do for a living, but that phone call and this thread have gotten me really excited to start up again. So, I also want to say thanks for starting this thread!

Crazy question–will the people who buy blood plasma reject me for taking Prevacid & Cetirizine Hydrochloride tablets?