What Is a Medical Technologist?

These professionals analyze body fluid and tissue samples

In This Article

Scientist examining test tubes in lab
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A medical technologist is a highly skilled health professional who tests and analyzes blood, other body fluids, and tissue samples. Medical technologists are responsible for operating and maintaining the equipment used to analyze specimens and ensuring that tests are completed in a correct and timely manner.

Medical technologists' training is more extensive than that of the medical lab technicians with whom they often work. Although medical technologists do not often interact directly with patients, their work is vital to the appropriate diagnosis, treatment, and care of patients.

Also Known As

  • Clinical laboratory scientist
  • Medical laboratory scientist
  • Medical laboratory technologist

Concentrations

Medical technologists work in all areas of the lab, including immunology, microbiology, genetics, histology, hematology, chemistry, toxicology, and blood banking.

The role of a medical technologist may be determined by the branch of pathology their lab specializes in, but is otherwise only limited by the tools they are provided. Regardless, it is purely diagnostic.

Clinical Pathology

In clinical pathology, the technologist would conduct and oversee lab tests on body fluids. The tests are performed to identify markers for infectious and non-infectious diseases. Among the specimens a medical technologist will typically analyze are:

Anatomical Pathology

Anatomical pathology involves the examination of tissues taken from the body during a biopsy or surgery. While some of the diagnostic tests can be performed by a technologist, others require the expertise of the pathologist.

The types of examinations a technologist may perform or assist in include:

  • Gross examination: Examination of tissue with the naked eye
  • Histology: Examination of tissue under a microscope
  • Cytopathology: Examination of loose cells under a microscope
  • Electron microscopy
  • Cytogenetics: Visualization of chromosomes using various techniques

The combined branches of clinical and anatomical pathology are referred to as general pathology.

Procedural Expertise

Medical technologists are responsible for preparing tissue samples, slides, and cultures for the pathologist to examine, streamlining the diagnostic process and allowing for faster lab results.

In larger facilities, technologists will perform more exacting tasks, such as molecular, genetic, or genomic testing. They will also step in when confronted with diagnostic challenges, including uncommon or contradictory lab findings.

The training that medical technologists undergo provides them the insights needed to know which testing methodologies, tools, and agents are most appropriate for each case.

Medical technologists typically work under a pathologist but may be independently tasked to operate a lab itself. Among their duties, medical technologists will oversee the work of lab technicians in addition to managing their own duties.

Although the pathologist is ultimately in charge of the lab and its staff, the medical technologist will usually be the one who ensures that the lab operates smoothly, safely, and properly on a day-to-day basis. This includes setting up, calibrating, and sterilizing lab equipment, as well as analyzing and checking the accuracy of lab reports.

Most medical technologists operate behind the scenes and do not have direct contact with patients. The health professionals generally tasked with obtaining specimens are phlebotomists and lab assistants. Other specimens are delivered directly to the lab by doctors and surgeons.

Subspecialties

Certain medical technologists will work in a narrow field of practice. For instance, some labs may specialize in genetics or cytopathology only. Others may have specific roles and functions within a hospital or institutional setting.

Transfusion Medicine

A technologist working in transfusion medicine ensures that there is an adequate and safe supply of blood in a blood bank. Other tasks may include blood typing and screening the blood for infectious diseases, such as HIV and viral hepatitis.

Forensic Pathology

Forensic pathology involves the examination of clinical and anatomical evidence after a sudden, unexpected death. While the forensic pathologist would typically be responsible for obtaining the human and non-human specimens (such as clothing fibers), the medical technologist would run many of the tests needed to determine the cause of death.

Organ-Specific Pathology

There are pathology subspecialties focused on specific organs or physiological systems. Working within these subspecialties would usually require additional training to better understand the diseases affecting these systems and the ways they are accurately diagnosed.

Examples include:

  • Cardiovascular pathology (heart and circulatory system)
  • Endocrine pathology (glands that produce hormones)
  • Gastrointestinal pathology (digestive tract)
  • Genitourinary pathology (genitals and urinary tract)
  • Gynecological pathology (female reproductive system)
  • Neuropathology (brain and nervous system)
  • Oral and maxillofacial pathology (mouth, jaw, and related structures)
  • Orthopedic pathology (bones, joints, and related structures)
  • Pulmonary pathology (lungs)
  • Renal pathology (kidneys)

Training and Certification

A medical technologist career requires at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably in an applicable scientific field such as biology, microbiology, or biochemistry.

Students who have majored or obtained a degree in another science program and who are interested in being medical technologists may pursue this path by taking hospital-based courses during their senior year of college, if offered.

In addition to this, students must complete a pathology lab internship.

The completion of a medical technologist program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency of Clinical Laboratory Science (NAA-CLS) is also required.

For optimum success, medical technologists should become certified after completing all of their educational and training requirements. The American Society of Clinical Pathologists (ASCP) offers a national certification exam that should ideally be renewed every three years. This certifies that a technologist is proficient in the field and allows them to add the initials MT(ASCP) after their name.

Certain states require licensing for all medical lab personnel, while others do not. Because the requirements can vary by state, contact your local state board or Department of Health for details.

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