Clinical chemistry is not a phrase many patients in a doctor’s office hear. However, everyday patient procedures such as having blood or urine samples taken are elemental to the clinical chemistry process. By running tests on these samples, physicians can determine patient conditions and possible diseases, and provide a recommended treatment plan.
The American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC) defines “what is clinical chemistry” as the study of cells and analytes within a patient’s bodily fluids by using laboratory procedures to make precise diagnoses, provide effective treatment options and monitor a patient’s response to treatment. A clinical chemist, also known as a medical laboratory scientist, can complete many of these tests. They do so in medical labs or at academic facilities, conducting research and developing new testing applications.
Common Clinical Chemistry Tests
Blood, plasma, urine and other body fluids provide a window through which clinical chemists can examine the health of a patient. Using technology to produce chemical reactions, lab technologists determine the quantity of cells such as glucose, electrolytes and hormones in the sample. Once the level of these substances is determined, clinical chemists collaborate with physicians to develop effective patient treatment options.
Following is information on conventional tests involving the most common specimens used in clinical chemistry: blood and urine.
- Blood Tests
After a patient’s blood is drawn by a doctor, nurse or other medical professional, it is collected into specific glass vials, labeled with the patient’s identifying information and sent to a lab for analysis.
Most blood tests examine plasma or serum. Plasma is the liquid portion of the blood, without cells, and circulates throughout the body. Many chemical analytes are carried in the plasma. After mixing the blood with an agent to prevent clotting, the blood sample is spun rapidly through a centrifuge to separate the plasma from the blood cells. The plasma rises to the top of the vial, with the white and red blood cells settle at the bottom.
Serum also contains many analytes, such as electrolytes, hormones, enzymes, and hormones, but lacks the clotting proteins. Serum is obtained in a centrifuge after it is separated from the blood cells that have not been treated with an anti-clotting agent.
After processing the blood, clinical chemists can examine key aspects of the patient’s health. For example, they can also determine levels of blood glucose, which is used by the body for energy. This information is needed to properly treat patients who are diabetic.
- Urine Tests
Urine is a byproduct of the kidneys, which are the body’s mechanism for filtering waste, regulating water and conserving various proteins and analytes for homeostasis. Lab scientists look for abnormal levels of substances in the urine such as blood, white blood cell, glucose or proteins to help determine if further testing is needed.
When examining the chemical and microscopic elements of the urine, clinical chemists may look for bilirubin — a component of bile. This is an early indication of certain liver diseases or blood cells that can indicate an infection or injury in the body.
The Importance of Clinical Chemistry
According to the American Clinical Laboratory Association (ACLA), more than 7 billion clinical tests are run annually in the U.S., with clinical chemists playing a central role in the quick and effective diagnosis and treatment of patients.
With the growing demand for patient clinical testing, recent graduates of clinical chemistry programs such as the bachelor’s of medical laboratory science (MLS) have the potential to directly impact health care. They have the opportunity to play a large role in shaping what clinical chemistry is today, and what it may look like in the future.
Coursework in the MLS program covers the latest medical knowledge about hematology (the study of blood), microbiology, and serum and fluid chemistry. With hands-on experience in performing clinical chemistry tests and using the latest technology, students can be well prepared to begin working in the field.
Many graduates start their careers as lab technicians, performing routine work such as conducting patient blood and urine tests. Clinical chemistry research is another path that is often open to graduates. Here, graduates can work as medical scientists who develop new testing methods for performing routine assessments.
Clinical chemistry is shown to have a profound effect on the expanding and evolving world of patient care. According to the ACLA, clinical chemistry can help reduce health care costs through early disease detection and facilitating the creation of individualized treatment plans.
Furthermore, clinical chemistry can play a key role in helping reduce the ravages of chronic diseases. In the case of diabetes, for instance, lab testing that monitors a patient’s glucose levels can help delay or even prevent complications such as heart or kidney disease, saving thousands of dollars and most importantly, patient lives.
The University of Cincinnati’s online Bachelor of Science in Medical Laboratory Science program has been designed for clinical laboratory technicians (CLTs) and medical laboratory technicians (MLTs) who are currently working in the field. Our online MLS program combines the quality and high standards of UC’s campus-based program with the flexibility and convenience of state-of-the-art distance learning. It is a smart choice for busy professionals who want to advance their education while also continuing to meet personal and professional responsibilities.
MLT vs. MLS: The Difference Between Medical Lab Technologists and Lab Scientists
The Medical Laboratory Scientist Personnel Shortage and the Future of Lab Medicine
What Can You Do with a Medical Laboratory Science Degree?
American Association for Clinical Chemistry, “Clinical Chemistry as a Career”
American Clinical Laboratory Association, “Importance of Clinical Lab Testing Highlighted During Medical Lab Professionals Week”
American Clinical Laboratory Association, “Value of Lab Testing”
Lab Tests Online, “Follow That Blood Sample: A Short Lab Tour”
Lab Tests Online, “Urinalysis”
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “Blood Tests”
News Medical Life Sciences, “Clinical Chemistry Tests”
University of Cincinnati, “Online Degree Programs, Bachelor’s – Medical Laboratory Science Curriculum”
U.S. Food & Drug Administration, “Tests Used in Clinical Care”