How did you decide to enter this field?
I had a Bachelor’s degree in Physiology and didn’t get into graduate school on my first try, mostly because of a lack of practical research experience. I decided that the MedTech program would be a good way to earn some practical laboratory skills while I waited a year or two to apply again. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the course material, though, and I ended up staying with the program and finding rewarding work in a hospital lab.
What kind of education and training did you have?
I already had a Bachelor’s degree, and the MedTech program I graduated from was in a “CEGEP” in Montreal, which is similar to a US community college. While it was only a 3-year program, the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Scence (CSMLS) considers it equivalent to the 4-year college laboratory programs in other provinces. When I wanted to work in the US, my MedTech degree would have only been sufficient to let me sit for the MLT exam (Medical Laboratory Technician), but with my previous B.Sc. I could write the MLS exam and be a Medical Laboratory Scientist.
The final 6 months of that program were an unpaid internship shared between three area hospitals, where I worked 8-hour shifts in all the areas of the lab: hematology, biochemistry, blood bank, microbiology, and histotechnology. During that time, I got to work as though I were one of the hospital’s regular employees, running patient specimens and reporting results. I was supervised and guided, of course, but after the first few days of training, I was mostly on my own and dealing with the workload as though I worked there for real.
What personal qualities are important for an individual considering this field?
Attention to detail is crucial, and an ability to detect when something doesn’t seem right is a big plus. Sometimes a result might seem okay but in context it won’t make sense – a good tech can sniff those out and deliver better care. For example, a really high glucose level might mean a diabetic patient in a crisis, but it could also mean that the specimen was drawn from the same vein a glucose IV is connected to.
Multitasking well is also helpful, because you’re rarely just doing one thing. Most of the time, the laboratory staff is cross-trained to some extent, so that the tech running the urinalysis bench can go help the hematology tech if the workload is uneven. Especially on the off-shifts, where that type of “generalist” is much more common, you need to be willing and ready to be a team player. I know that gets thrown around a lot in the business world, but I think it’s very true in the laboratory and I don’t mean it in a dismissive corporate-speak way. The tests must get done, or patient care suffers. So if someone’s getting backed up in their workload and you’ve got nothing to do, you get up, go over, and help. It’s just what you do in the lab, because you care about those patients waiting for their results.
What do you wish you had known before entering this field?
The profession, while as vitally important to patient care as nursing, doesn’t get very much respect. Few people know we even exist, let alone what we do, and our pay is much less than for nurses with equivalent education and experience. Unfortunately, this ignorance of our importance can sometimes exist within hospital management, and labs are often understaffed and overworked, with old equipment that can’t be replaced due to budget cuts. We make do and we put up with it because we care about the patients upstairs in the OR or the ER or the maternity ward and want to do right by them.
That’s why I care so much about Lab Week – I want to advocate for the profession so that we’re more visible and our work is better understood. Without dedicated and caring laboratory staff, a hospital would fall apart.
What do you like best and find most rewarding about the career?
Knowing that every day, I did something to help a patient live longer or healthier by providing a doctor with a result, or preparing blood products for transfusion.
Now that I’m out of hospital work, I find I’m enjoying learning more about quality assurance as it applies to the laboratory. I’m doing more research and development work, and manufacturing FDA-licensed test reagents, and it’s a lot slower-paced than when I was used to in the hospital. I like that I’m getting a chance to learn so many new things right now.
What do you like least and find most frustrating about the career?
Hospital politics and understaffing. It’s hard to do a good and safe job when you’re working on too many things at once.
How much influence do you have over decisions that affect you?
That depends on the specific lab and on the manager and supervisors. Good labs will ask for input before changing schedules, ordering new equipment, and adopting new procedures. In my experience, I have not had enough influence. That’s part of why I took a break from hospital work (but being tired of evening shift was the main reason). I’ve never been very good at accepting “because that’s how we’ve always done it” as an answer, and that sometimes gets me into trouble. I’m a problem-solver by nature, and I’ve always tried to improve processes by studying them first instead of just applying random fixes. While I think that hospital labs are starting to head in that direction, there’s still a long way to go, and I often found myself frustrated when hospital management decided to “solve” a problem without really understanding it.
What additional training and qualifications are necessary for advancement?
There are levels of certification. MLT and MLS are the most common ones, but you can also take special courses for advanced certification in one specialty like chemistry or blood bank, and that is often a good path towards management. It’s also possible to branch out from the hospital lab and work in other fields like quality assurance, manufacturing, instrumentation, and IT.
What specific advice would you give to someone entering this field?
Don’t cut corners, ever. You have lives in your hands. Quality control is done for a reason. Procedures are in place for a reason. Don’t ever let anyone else (nurses, doctors, management) bully you into cutting corners, either. Be prepared to work hard and probably not get a ton of kudos for it. I enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing the difference I was making, and I enjoyed the pressure and the feeling of being needed. It can be an incredibly draining career, but worth it if you want to be in healthcare and prefer working in a lab instead of directly with people. Oh, and if you’re easily grossed out, or if you tend to faint at the sight of blood, this is obviously not a career for you.