Category Archives: Science

balloon made of nitrile glove

Nine Exciting Med Tech Alternative Careers

Whether you’re calling yourself a medical laboratory technologist or clinical laboratory scientist or any combination of those, let’s face it: you’re likely underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated by the rest of the healthcare team. In honor of Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, April 24-30, 2016, I’ve come up with a helpful list of part-time jobs that med techs can sign up for on their days off to bring in a little extra money. After all, we’ve got an impressive skill set thanks to our laboratory training! You never know when you may need one of these med tech alternative careers to bring in a little extra money.


1. Large Appliance Mechanic

maintenance on beckman lab instruments

The instruments are always down, and you’re always neck-deep inside one trying to figure out what’s stuck where. Why restrict yourself to chemistry analyzers and hematology counters when those same skills can probably dislodge stray forks from a dishwasher?

2. Shelf Stocker

shelf full of laboratory reagents

Everything is labeled, facing front, tagged with expiration dates and segregated by lot number. The grocery store will never be the same once you’re done with them. As far as med tech alternative careers go, this one’s a no-brainer. You can even work overnights!

3. Flower Arranger

plastic beaker full of pipettes

You can fit one more carnation in there. And a fern. Keep jamming.

4. Crime Scene Cleanup Technician

blood cleanup with bleach

It’s disturbing how quickly you can jump in with advice when someone asks how to get blood out of clothes.

 


5. Balloon Artist

balloon made of nitrile glove

They work well as water balloons too. Don’t ask me how I know. What happens during lab week stays in lab week.

6. Extremely Patient Phone Customer Service Representative

lab phone call

Yes, your specimen is hemolyzed. No, it was definitely like that when we got it. And no, we can’t run it anyway. No, we don’t hemolyze it just because we don’t like you. We’d use those laser-eyes for much better things if we had them, trust us.

7. Timekeeper

laboratory timers

Bake cookies in four different ovens. Sit in a hairdresser’s and monitor how long the dye’s been on whom. Stand by the track at the Olympics and time the bobsleds.1

8. Barista for Blood Cafe

pouring blood

Depending on whose blood you’ve got, it’s pretty lowfat, and I can definitely give you extra foam.

9. That Guy Who Writes Names On Grains Of Rice

labeled tubes sharpie

We know that anything fatter than an ultra-fine Sharpie doesn’t deserve the pocket space. Years of teeny tiny writing on tubes, labels, and badly-designed downtime worksheets means that we’ve perfected the skill of fitting our initials and the date (and more) into microscopic spaces.


Happy Lab Week to all my fellow lab rats. May your QC always be in range and may your STATs be few.


1 True story: I bought myself a lab-style timer for my kitchen, because I’m so well-conditioned that I can’t help but respond immediately to the beeping. And multiple channels are so incredibly useful when I’m cooking and have one thing on the stovetop and one in the oven and need to keep track of them both.

Many thanks to my lab friends for helping me with the photos for this post.

Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and you can read more about that here. I only ever link to products I love and recommend.

The needs of the many

The anti-vaccination crowd is a tiny minority. Even in the areas with the most vaccine resistance, 95% of people are still vaccinating their kids. But the anti-vax group is loud. They have celebrities backing them up and their misguided views give news outlets a “controversy” to report on.

The 95%, the sensible people who know that vaccination is the right thing to do, well, we just go about our lives and get our kids their shots. But then these misinformed people drag down vaccination rates. Babies too young to be vaccinated and people with compromised immune systems are at huge risk. But so is everyone else. The shots we’ve given our kids aren’t magical – the virus can still make them sick. And because of the unimmunized, because of the reality of how vaccines work even when done right, now we have measles spreading again.

Public schools require children to be fully vaccinated to attend, but it’s easy enough for a parent to fill out a “religious” exemption form and completely sidestep a very important public health safeguard. And that’s unacceptable. I’m writing to local school boards and my elected officials at the county, state, and federal level, and I’m going to ask them for mandatory vaccines for public school attendance. No exemptions unless it’s a legitimate MEDICAL exemption like an allergy or immune disorder. I don’t want to see kids dying of measles. Want to skip vaccination? No public school for you. Period.

We 95% need to get loud. Very loud. Because it’s bullshit that a tiny percentage of people who have been swayed by dubious internet “research” and unethical physicians can bring back a horrible disease and put everyone else’s health in danger. There’s no controversy. Vaccines are safe and vaccines work. They have saved literally millions of lives worldwide. Start talking. Start yelling. We are many and we are right and we need to be louder than them.

Keep looking up

It was a sad week for space flight.

First, the Antares rocket, destined for the International Space Station, was lost in an explosion soon after launch. Nobody was injured, but it was still a huge loss. Science experiments and research projects, many of which were designed by students, were completely destroyed. My heart breaks for these kids, who must have been positively bursting with pride at the thought that something they planned and built was going to the space station.

And today, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave desert, killing one of the test pilots. His or her name will be added to the list of those whose lives were lost in the name of advancing the frontier. There are many; they are all heroes.

Space flight is dangerous. We can’t let this stop progress in space exploration.

Budgets are shrinking. People – many people who control the money – think that space just isn’t as important any more. It’s frivolous to spend so much to take pictures of moons and grow plants in space.

But it’s not frivolous. It’s so, so important. Yes, SpaceShipTwo was about “space tourism,” selling tickets for a suborbital flight experience. So what? Do you know how much research went into designing and building that ship? And the launch plane that carries it? How much of that can be used elsewhere, to do other things? So many things have come from the space program. From all space programs. And you can’t always know in advance which little experiments, which discoveries, which technological tweaks, will be the important ones.

But it’s more than that. More than the science, and the hope that someday, someone at NASA can make us better cell phones. It’s inspiration. And hope and awe and wonder. Who can look at photos like this and not have their breath taken away?

Look at that. Look how tiny we are.

And just think of how much there is to see. To learn.

It’s incredible. It’s wonderful.

Keep looking up.

Never, ever stop looking up.

Where Do Babies Come From?

 

(Note: this is an edited repost from May 2013.)

 

When a man and a woman love each other very much and want to have a baby, they share a special hug that puts a baby into the woman’s belly.

We tell children variations on this story, adding levels of scientific complexity and biological grossness as they get old enough to want or need the details.

For 1 in 8 couples, though, this story isn’t true.

Sometimes all the love in the world isn’t enough to make a baby, no matter how enthusiastic the special hugging.

Sometimes, a man and a woman love each other very much and want to start a family. They throw away all the protection that they’ve been using since their parents taught them about the mechanics of sex, and they “try”. They make jokes about bad baby names and daydream about the nursery. It’s fun and it’s exciting and they hold their breaths every month as they check pregnancy tests to see if they made it.

And they wait.

Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. Soon, they say, and look at each other with knowing smiles.

They start to wonder why it’s taking so long. They do some research. She buys tests to check her urine every day. The strips can tell her when she’s ovulating so they can have better timing. She buys a thermometer to take her temperature every morning before getting out of bed, to keep track of her cycles. She drinks green tea and eats pineapples; someone on the internet said it helps. He takes vitamins and tries to eat healthier. She cuts out caffeine and pushes through the withdrawal headaches. He avoids hot tubs on vacation. Every month, they wait two long weeks after ovulation to see if they’ll get a pink line on a pregnancy test.

And they wait.

Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. Soon, they say, and squeeze each other’s hand for support under the table.

Someone tells her to just relax. Maybe stick her legs up in the air after sex. Someone asks him if they’ve tried different positions.

They see doctors. They give medical histories. They have blood drawn. How are their hormone levels? Do they have any STDs? They send blood out to see if they’re carriers for genetic diseases. He hands over a sample container in a crinkled paper bag. He holds her hand as she lies back and tries not to faint while a tech squeezes thick gel into her uterus and fallopian tubes to see if the paths are clear.

And they wait: for the phone calls, the follow-up visits, the medical bills. They wait for answers.

Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. The silence is awkward.

Someone says they should try adopting, because their cousin got pregnant right after she got that girl from the Philippines.

Sometimes the problem is obvious, once the test results come back. Bad sperm, blocked tubes, hormone imbalances blocking ovulation. Sometimes it can be fixed with medication or surgery. But sometimes the doctors shrug and say there’s nothing wrong that they can find, but that if pregnancy hasn’t happened yet without intervention, it probably won’t. They give the couple odds. They’re bad. They cry.

There are options, of course, but they’re expensive. Many insurance plans have little to no coverage for fertility drugs or procedures. Intrauterine insemination, usually the first step, can cost over $1000, and you’re only buying a 15-20% chance at a viable pregnancy for your money. In-vitro fertilization has better odds (40-60%) but is much more invasive and expensive – approximately $10,000 per round. It’s a whirlwind of tears and hormones, injections and blood draws, medical bills and invasive ultrasounds, and time taken off work for medical appointments. And it’s waiting. Always, always waiting.

Babies come from love. Sometimes they come from science, too. Sometimes they come from donor eggs or sperm or from adoption. And sometimes, they never come.

This week is National Infertility Awareness Week. Many people are reluctant to talk about infertility. Maybe they’re ashamed of their issues, feeling like there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they’ve heard one too many “helpful” comments and are afraid to tell anyone else about what they’re living. Maybe it’s too hard to talk about without crying.

Please take a moment to read this page from RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association. This is information that everyone needs to know in order to create a better support network for the infertile couples in their lives. Read it. Absorb it. Share it. 1 in 8 couples out there could really use your support.

That’s why I walked in RESOLVE’s 2013 Walk of Hope in Washington DC last June. Funds raised from the Walk support local RESOLVE programming, including support groups and educational events, public awareness initiatives, and advocacy efforts to ensure family building options are available to all. Because they should be. You can learn more about RESOLVE here, and donate to the cause, if you’d like. But just the act of you reading this post has helped the cause, too, so thank you.

 

 

The Obligations of a Scientist

As much as I wanted to, I initially decided against answering Dr. Stemwedel’s questions about scientists’ obligations. She split the respondents into two groups – scientists and non-scientists – and I was uncomfortable with choosing a side because I wasn’t sure where I belonged. Yes, the word is in my job title (I’m a Medical Laboratory Scientist), but I always imagine “a scientist” running experiments and curing cancer and discovering quasars and writing papers that will earn them a Nobel prize. I don’t do any of that. I just play with blood. I used to work in a hospital blood bank. These days, I work in manufacturing.  I make specialized reagents for reference immunohematology laboratories to use in solving complex cases and finding rare blood types for transfusion. I work in a scientific field, but am I a scientist? I don’t think Dr. Stemwedel intended for her questions to open up cans of introspective worms in her readers, but they gave me a lot of thinking to do.

After discussing my dilemma with friends who feel the same way, I finally decided that I am comfortable saying that I am a scientist1. Wearing that badge, I will offer up my thoughts, even if I’m late to the game by a couple of weeks.

Note: Because of my background, I’m biased towards biological and medical sciences. There are many different species of scientist, of course, and I can only speak for myself.

1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

As a person whose daily work affects the lives of others, I think I have a general obligation to give a damn about the work I do, and take pride in doing it well. I’ve written about professionalism before, and I still think it’s a critical quality for a scientist to have. That said, I don’t think a commitment to quality is in any way restricted to scientists. I think that any human being who’s taken on a career of any sort has that same obligation, although laziness and corner-cutting will have a greater impact in some fields than in others. A bolt missing in a box of Ikea furniture, while annoying, isn’t as bad as a bolt lost in the assembly of a helicopter.

Scientists are held up to a different standard, I think, than the average person. The title of “scientist” often carries with it an presumption of intelligence and authority, which is why an answer from a scientist on a scientific topic will carry more weight than the same answer from a bus driver. The same can be said of anyone who’s an expert in a field, from law to medicine to electrical work. We need to be aware of the fact that people will trust our answers, and we must be comfortable with admitting ignorance instead of making guesses. As scientists, we should be the very last people pulling answers out of the air (excepting, of course, the atmospheric scientists among us) when we’re not entirely sure. Our training urges us to do the research, check sources, and back up our assertions with facts2.

Over and above avoiding statements we can’t back up, I think we have an obligation to call out bullshit science when we see it. Homeopathy, wacky diets, “OMG the moon will be BIGGER THAN MARS tonight” Facebook posts, and that sort of thing. If those of us who know better don’t step in and replace false claims with correct information, then the level of scientific literacy in this world will keep declining. That would make for a sad and ignorant world, and i’d very much like to avoid it. We get bonus points if we can make the real science as exciting as the fake science, because then people will be inspired to share the good stuff, and it will get out there faster and crush the forces of bullshit. I hold up Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, as an example we should all aim to follow.

2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don’t have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?

I was raised believing that we all have a duty to contribute to the world in some way, and to live and work with integrity. My teachers in the medical technology program reinforced the importance of quality in laboratory work, and I’ve taken that to heart. Thanks to those teachers, I’ve always felt very strongly about promoting my profession. I don’t scribble fun lab facts on a sandwich board and stand in the park with a megaphone, but when Medical Laboratory Professionals Week comes around, I put in a lot of effort to get information out there.

We need a scientifically literate society if we want to keep making progress as a species. If I don’t support and promote science when I’m given an opportunity to do so, then I’m not contributing to that end.

3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you’re sharing a world have to you?

To ask questions, even if it means challenging a scientist. It’s just like the “Ask me if I’ve washed my hands” buttons you may have seen nurses wearing – just because we know we should be doing it the right way doesn’t mean that we always are. And it’s okay to remind us of that.

1.  That discussion deserves a post of its own, and it will get one soon.

2. I’m looking at YOU, “Doctor” Phil.

Lab Q&A – I could really use your Qs!

I’m live-tweeting my workday today, and it’s probably the most entertaining thing I’ve done in ages. I should have done this for Lab Week!

The response is reminding me how much I love talking about laboratory science, and how important it is to share a little bit of it with the world, so my profession can be better understood.

But I’m not a professor with a lesson plan, and what’s fascinating to me may bore others to tears. So I need to know what you’d like to know about what goes on in a laboratory. I worked in hospital labs for several years, and now I work in a blood reagent manufacturing lab, so I’ve got a whole bunch of answers rolling around in my head – I just need you to prompt me with some questions.

So, folks: what have you got?

Professionalism

A friend recently pointed me to this article about the professional responsibility and ethics that come into play when a healthcare professional is faced with treating a patient in a way that goes against their own beliefs. Since I’m a member of one of those professions, I thought I’d share my perspective.

When you commit yourself to a healthcare career, you don’t have much control over what kinds of patients you will see. Yes, a doctor can choose to specialize in obstetrics or urology, and a nurse can choose to work at a retirement home because he or she doesn’t like dealing with children. But you don’t get to decide what kind of care your patients will get based on their politics, their religion, or their life choices. You can encourage a patient to quit smoking, but you can’t give someone subpar care for their emphysema even if you feel, deep inside, that they brought it upon themselves.

Doctors take an oath to do no harm, and while I don’t know if others in the healthcare professions do the same, I can say that the overwhelming majority of those I’ve known in those positions take immense pride in their work and treat all patients with great care and respect. Those who triage their patients by anything other than medical urgency quickly lose the respect of their peers. Or they lose their jobs.

That’s why it bothers me when I read things like this, from Twitter right after the Boston Marathon suspect was taken to the hospital:

Now that the 2nd suspect is caught and in the hospital, what’s preventing a Doctor/Nurse from injecting “go fuck yourself” serum?

Frankly, the very concept is offensive to me, and I think I speak for the vast majority of medical and allied health professionals. Of course the medical team isn’t going to enjoy some vigilante justice and “accidentally” give him the wrong care to watch him die. And that’s not just because so many people are watching, or because the police have instructed them to keep him alive. It’s their job to keep him alive. Every single person who comes through those doors will be given 100% of their effort, because that’s how a trauma emergency room works. It doesn’t matter if you’re a four-year-old who was hit by a car, or the drunk driver who hit him. You’re a broken body, and they will do everything they can to put you back together.

I had a colleague who once told me that the lab he worked in years ago used to receive and test specimens from smaller medical facilities every day, because the smaller places didn’t have labs of their own. When he found out that one of them was an abortion clinic, he refused to have anything to do with those specimens, saying that running the tests would go against his religious beliefs. He’d have had nothing at all to do with the actual abortion process, mind you. The specimens he would have been testing would have been for the women’s blood counts and chemistries: tests no different from what you’d have done at your annual physical. Astonishingly, his coworkers and employer had no problem with his decision, and accommodated him. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen at our current employer if he was faced with a similar situation. We didn’t deal with abortion clinics, but we did have several operating rooms and sometimes there were D&C’s on the operating schedule – with no way to know whether they were being done after miscarriages or planned abortions, would he refuse to crossmatch blood for those patients if they hemorrhaged on the table? To be fair, I never saw him refuse any specimen while I worked with him, so maybe his attitudes had changed by then. I didn’t probe further, because an ideological debate has a right time and a right place, and an evening shift in a busy laboratory is neither of those things.

The fact remains, though, that he did refuse care to patients based on a conflict between their decisions and his religious beliefs. It wasn’t direct care, it wasn’t emergency life-saving care, but it was still a massive breach of professionalism. And he got away with it. No disciplinary action, no reminder that a patient is a patient and a test is a test and you don’t get to choose like that.

I’m equally appalled by pharmacists who refuse to dispense the legal, FDA-approved Plan B contraceptive pill despite the patient’s valid prescription. Like my former coworker, they get away with it. As long as someone else can fill the prescription, they can keep their conscience clean. And I think that’s bullshit. Pure, unadulterated bullshit. Your obligation as a pharmacist is to dispense medications to patients. You don’t get to decide not to give out Plan B because you’re opposed to the idea, just like you can’t refuse someone their diabetes pills because you think they should be exercising more and eating better, and you don’t want to be an enabler. If you want to be a pharmacist and you want to avoid ever having to give out contraceptives, go work in hospice care or geriatrics.

It’s simple. You have an obligation, when you work in health care, to do your absolute best for each and every patient you interact with. If you’re not able and willing to do that, because your personal beliefs get in the way, then you need to find a new job.

 

Where Do Babies Come From?

When a man and a woman love each other very much and want to have a baby, they share a special hug that puts a baby into the woman’s belly.
We tell children variations on this story, adding levels of scientific complexity and biological grossness as they get old enough to need the details.
For 1 in 8 couples, though, this story isn’t true.
Sometimes all the love in the world isn’t enough to make a baby, no matter how enthusiastic the special hugging.
Sometimes, a man and a woman love each other very much and want to start a family. They throw away all the protection that they’ve been using since their parents taught them about the mechanics of sex, and they “try”. It’s fun and it’s exciting and they hold their breaths every month as they check pregnancy tests to see if they made it.
And they wait.
Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. Soon, they say, and look at each other with knowing smiles.
They start to wonder why it’s taking so long. They do some research. She buys tests to check her urine every day so she can find out when she’s ovulating so they can have better timing. She buys a thermometer to take her temperature every morning before getting out of bed, to can keep track of her cycles. She drinks green tea and eats pineapples; someone on the internet said it helps. He takes vitamins and tries to eat healthier. She cuts out caffeine and pushes through the headaches. He avoids hot tubs on vacation. Every month, they wait two weeks after ovulation to see if they’ll get a pink line on a pregnancy test.
And they wait.
Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. Soon, they say, and squeeze each other’s hand for support under the table.
Someone tells her to just relax. Someone asks him if they’ve tried a different position.
They see doctors. They give medical histories. They have blood drawn. How are their hormone levels? Do they have any STDs? They send blood out to see if they’re carriers for genetic diseases. He holds her hand as she lies back and tries not to faint while a tech squeezes thick gel into her uterus and fallopian tubes to see if the paths are clear.
And they wait: for the phone calls, the follow-up visits, the medical bills. They wait for answers.
Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. The silence is awkward.
Someone says they should try adopting, because their cousin got pregnant right after she got that girl from the Philippines.
Sometimes the problem is obvious, once the test results come back. Bad sperm, blocked tubes, hormone imbalances blocking ovulation. Sometimes it can be fixed with medication or surgery. But sometimes the doctors shrug and say there’s nothing wrong that they can find, but that if pregnancy hasn’t happened yet without intervention, it probably won’t. They give the couple odds. They’re bad. They cry.
There are options, of course, but they’re expensive. Many insurance plans have little to no coverage for fertility drugs or procedures. Intrauterine insemination, usually the first step, can cost over $1000, and you’re only buying a 15-20% chance at a viable pregnancy for your money. In-vitro fertilization has better odds (40-60%) but is much more invasive and expensive – approximately $10,000 per round. It’s a whirlwind of tears and hormones, injections and blood draws, medical bills and invasive ultrasounds, and time taken off work for medical appointments. And it’s waiting. Always, always waiting.
Babies come from love. Sometimes they come from science, too. Sometimes they come from donor eggs or sperm or from adoption. And sometimes, they never come.
Last week was National Infertility Awareness Week. Many people are reluctant to talk about infertility. Maybe they’re ashamed of their issues, feeling like there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they’ve heard one too many “helpful” comments and are afraid to tell anyone else about what they’re living. Maybe it’s too hard to talk about without crying.
Please take a moment to read this page from RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association. This is information that everyone needs to know in order to create a better support network for the infertile couples in their lives. Read it. Absorb it. Share it. 1 in 8 couples out there could really use your support.
That’s why I’m walking in RESOLVE’s 2013 Walk of Hope in Washington DC this June. Funds raised from the Walk support local RESOLVE programming, including support groups and educational events, public awareness initiatives, and advocacy efforts to ensure family building options are available to all. Because they should be.

If you’d like to contribute to the cause, my fundraising page is here. But just the act of you reading this post has helped the cause, too, so thank you.

What else can I do with my medical laboratory degree?

To close out this year’s edition of National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, I want to step away from the hospital lab.
I left the hospital life a year and a half ago to move into an entirely different sort of laboratory work, but I still talk about the hospital every time I’m asked questions about the profession. I do it because it’s the world I worked in the longest (so far) and so I know it very well, and because the majority of graduates from medical laboratory science programs will find employment in hospital labs. My information about working as a hospital med tech is relevant and well informed, but it’s not the entire picture.
You can do a lot more than hospital work with a MLT or MLS degree. There are also positions available in walk-in medical clinics like LabCorp or Quest, and in some large medical practices. Some specialty medical practices, like endocrinology centers and fertility clinics, will also have their own small laboratory in-house to run some of the simpler tests. Often, in those places, a lab tech will end up doing more outside-the-lab work, like bringing patients into exam rooms, and taking blood pressure and other vital signs. Some of them are 24-hour places with shift work, and some are a 9-to-5 weekday job.
There are specialty laboratories that run all the weird complicated testing that other labs aren’t equipped to do, like genetic testing. There are veterinary labs. Most manufacturers of food, cosmetics, and drugs will have laboratory staff to test their products for quality. There are labs that specialize in drug testing, for pre-employment screens or for athletes.
Depending on your interests, you can get yourself into a research laboratory at a university, or a place like NIH or the CDC. There are plenty of laboratories at the county, state, and federal level, also. Public health labs are the most obvious ones, but what about the FDA? EPA? Even the U.S. Geological Survey does a ton of microbiological research.
You can teach. You can travel and be a tech in other countries. You can get more technical and work for the instrumentation giants like Beckman Coulter or Siemens, either in tech support, sales, or research and development of new assays. If you like computers, you can get into programming and work with laboratory information systems.
And working for these companies doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be sitting at a lab bench. Someone who’s got a laboratory background can do very well in tech support, customer service and education, quality assurance, or regulatory compliance.
That’s another area lab techs can move into – there are several regulatory bodies who oversee laboratories of different types. The American Association of Blood Banks, The Joint Commission, The College of American Pathologists – all of these organizations inspect laboratories for compliance and hand out accreditation, and need inspectors who understand laboratories.
Yes, when you graduate from a medical laboratory science program, you’ll probably start out in a hospital lab, doing the shifts that the seasoned techs don’t want. But you’re not stuck there if you don’t like it. It’s been my experience that the school programs aren’t very good at showing students all the other options that are out there, and how they can work towards them. Hopefully this post helps a few folks who are hating their night shift hematology job but don’t know what else they can do with a medical laboratory degree.

Are There Any Questions? (Part 2)

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.