Medical laboratories are where the latest advances in health care translate directly into improved diagnoses and patient outcomes. A student looking into whether medical lab science (MLS) is a good career will find a diverse number of career tracks available to medical laboratory science professionals, depending on their education focus.
Working as a medical lab scientist is much like being a detective. However, instead of hunting for clues, medical laboratorians use sophisticated medical equipment to conduct tests that detect health threats such as cancer, heart disease and the bacteria and viruses that cause life-threatening infections. Medical lab science combines aspects of microbiology, clinical chemistry, immunology and other disciplines to help doctors and other health professionals diagnose and treat diseases of all types.
MLS Education Requirements
Medical laboratory scientists are also referred to as medical technologists; they are commonly distinguished from medical laboratory technicians by having achieved a higher level of education. Generally, a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science (also called medical or clinical technology) is required for an entry-level technologist position. Some states mandate licenses or other certification to work in a medical laboratory.
The curriculum for a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science covers a range of technology and mathematics courses, including microbiology, chemistry and statistics. After finishing the pre-requisite college coursework, students usually shift to the clinical portion of the medical lab technology program. Clinical education trains students in safety procedures, specimen analysis, method validation, laboratory management and other lab practices. The student’s clinical training often occurs in hospitals and other typical laboratory settings.
Applying the Latest Tech to Improve Patient Health
Topping the list of qualifications required for medical laboratory scientists and technicians is the ability to operate computerized diagnostic and testing equipment. Work in medical labs requires excellent attention to detail to prevent errors that could potentially endanger patients. Many tasks performed in medical labs call for manual dexterity to ensure the proper use of precision lab instruments. Some duties performed by medical lab professionals entail collecting test samples and others require long periods of standing.
According to figures compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical laboratory scientists and technicians earned a median annual wage of $51,770 as of May 2017. However, salaries vary by industry, with median salaries ranging from $54,670 for people working at general medical and surgical hospitals to $45,520 for those employed at outpatient care centers.
Need for Medical Lab Scientists Will Increase
The BLS projects that medical laboratory scientist jobs will increase by 12 percent between 2016 and 2026, while positions for medical laboratory technicians will grow by 14 percent in the decade. The growth rate for both job categories is faster than the average for all occupations. The job prospects are best for candidates who hold a degree from an accredited educational program or who have earned a professional certificate.
Medical Test Results Require Interpretation by a Professional
Medical equipment and devices are more sophisticated than ever, and it takes a great deal of skill and experience to conduct today’s complex tests. In addition, an aging population and medical advances mean more tests are being performed than ever. The Commission on Office Laboratory Accreditation cites a 2014 study by the U.S. government that identified laboratory testing as the “highest-volume medical activity,” with about 13 billion tests conducted in the U.S. each year. Other studies cited in the COLA report found that two-thirds of all medical decisions are based on the results of lab tests. The testing conducted in medical labs also contributes to guiding treatment, monitoring a patient’s progress and keeping healthy patients well.
The growing number and increased sophistication of medical tests give medical laboratory scientists the lead in interpreting the results of the tests, in consultation with physicians and other health care professionals. The accuracy of the test results depends on the correct operation of the test machinery, which in turn depends on properly trained lab scientists and technicians. Medical lab scientists are also the first line of defense when it comes to spotting errors made during the testing process.
Lab Testing’s Vital Role in Community Health
The high demand for medical lab scientists and technicians is only one of the many reasons why students choose the profession. Few vocations give students a better opportunity to help people restore and maintain their health. The importance of medical lab professionals increases as other health professions receive less formal training in performing medical tests and interpreting the results.
Medical Labs Offer a Choice of Workplaces, Schedules
Many medical lab workers appreciate the variety of work environments and shift opportunities they can choose from. BLS figures indicate that nearly half of all medical laboratory scientists and technicians work at general medical and surgical hospitals, where the labs may operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition to work in hospitals, medical lab professionals are employed by independent medical and diagnostic laboratories, physicians’ offices, outpatient facilities and medical facilities at institutes of higher education.
Medical Lab Science as a Springboard to Health Administration
When considering whether medical lab science is a good career, it is important to assess the field’s many career paths. The role of clinical chemist, for example, entails research and development of precise laboratory diagnoses and therapies customized to individual patients. Molecular biology and transplant procedures, which are among the fastest-growing areas in medical science, rely on advances in clinical chemistry.
With sufficient experience, medical lab scientists can pursue a position as a laboratory supervisor. In addition, laboratory scientists can return to school after their bachelor’s degree to earn a master’s in health administration or other related field to serve in higher-level administrative roles.
The range of career opportunities available to medical lab scientists and technicians continues to expand as medical diagnostics and treatment become more specialized, more sophisticated and important in keeping an aging population healthy.
The University of Cincinnati’s online Bachelor of Science in Medical Laboratory Science program is designed for medical laboratory technicians (formerly known as clinical laboratory technicians) who are currently working in the field. The program aims to help these health care professionals start down the path toward achieving professional success. Learn more about the University of Cincinnati’s online MLS offerings here.
American Association for Clinical Chemistry
American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians
U.S. News and World Report
Commission on Office Laboratory Accreditation: Patient-Centered Medical Home white paper