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Duties of a Cytologist

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If you're looking for a career in the medical field and prefer to work behind the scenes rather than in direct patient care, a career as a cytologist might be right for you. Cytologists, more commonly known as cytotechnologists, examine cell samples under a microscope to detect the presence of abnormalities or disease. Degree and post-baccalaureate certificate programs are available and can be completed in as little as one year. Requirements for admissions vary, but all of the programs seek candidates with a strong background in science and an aptitude for working with microscopes and other technical equipment. Salaries for cytotechnologists typically range from $68,259 to $82,110. If you have excellent visual acuity, good analytical and problem-solving skills, and the desire to work in the health care environment, you might want to investigate this often-overlooked field.

A Brief History of Cytopathology

The technique of examining cells or bodily fluids to detect abnormalities has been part of medical practice almost as long as microscopes have been used. It wasn't until the 20th century, however, that examination of cell samples became routinely incorporated into the physician's set of diagnostic tools. In 1943, two physicians, Drs. George N. Papanicolaou and Herbert F. Trout published a paper about detecting uterine cancer with the help of a vaginal smear. The findings reported in the paper were of great interest to doctors of obstetrics, gynecology and pathology. The Pap smear, named after one of the physicians who first advocated for it, soon became widely accepted as a diagnostic tool. The Inter-Society Cytology Council was formed in 1951 to advance research in the field. In 1961, the council officially changed its name to the American Society of Cytology. In 1994, the society changed its name to its current form, the American Society of Cytopathology (ASC).

ASC has several functions. It hosts an annual scientific meeting to highlight new research and to recognize individuals for outstanding achievements in practice and education. The ASC sends a delegate to the annual meeting of the American Medical Association (AMA) House of Delegates, which provides an opportunity for practitioners in other medical specialties to learn about the latest developments in cytotechnology. The ASC reviews cytotechnology programs as part of the credentialing process. It offers continuing education resources for cytotechnologists who want to maintain their certification. The ASC publishes a bimonthly journal to share original research and initiatives in education and has a foundation through which it provides financial support for research and education.

Job Description

The cytotechnologist duties and responsibilities begin with the examination under a microscope of a patient's cellular material. Cytotechnologists are trained to look for abnormalities in skin cells and bodily fluids that are evidence of bacteria or virus. They are trained to detect the presence of diseases such as cancer and study patient records to get an understanding of an individual's medical history to detect if there are any changes. If changes or evidence of disease are detected, the cytotechnologist sends the findings to a pathologist. A pathologist is a medical doctor who diagnoses and treats patients through laboratory medicine. Like cytotechnologists, pathologists work behind the scenes in collaboration with other health care professionals, including physicians who provide direct patient care.

In addition to having a strong aptitude for science, cytotechnologists must be well organized and detail oriented and thrive on working in a meticulous environment. Although many of their daily tasks are performed independently, cytotechnologists must adhere to procedural standards and carefully document all their findings. They're expected to calibrate, troubleshoot and perform routine maintenance on the machines and equipment they use in their practice. Cytotechnologists have to adhere to the laws and regulations that pertain to laboratory work in their state. Those who are in a supervisory capacity may double-check the work of others to ensure accuracy and identify potential errors.

Cytotechnologist Education

Before applying to a program, it is helpful to talk to someone works as a cytotechnologist. Certain personalities are better suited to the field than others. You need to have strong analytical skills with the ability to prioritize and manage your workload. Excellent written and oral communications skills are needed. You need to be self-motivated. Much of the work is accomplished independently, although you'll probably be part of a team environment. As with most jobs in the health care profession, you spend your time indoors. A comfort level with computer software is important to the job since most health care records are managed electronically.

The requirements for cytotechnologist education offer some flexibility. For most, the first step is earning a bachelor's degree in biology, medical technology or one of the life sciences. Some students are admitted to cytotechnology programs in the junior or senior year of undergraduate studies if they meet all the prerequisites. Although specific coursework varies from school to school, candidates must usually have 28 credits in sciences, including chemistry and life sciences, and three credits in mathematics or statistics.

Baccalaureate and post-baccalaureate certificate programs in cytotechnology are offered in university and hospital/laboratory settings. Be sure the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) accredits the program you're interested in. The Commission is the largest accreditor of training programs in the health professions and oversees programs that prepare students for entry-level positions in more than 30 professions in the health care field.

What does a cytologist study? The curriculum of any accredited program includes lecture, demonstrations, laboratory and supervised practice. Students study selected cytologic specimens to learn how to recognize the presence of abnormalities. They learn how to collect specimens and how to prepare and stain slides in the lab. During the clinical portion of their program, students typically complete individual research projects and take part in rotations of the different departments in which cytotechnologists work.

After the completion of a CAAHEP-accredited program, a student is eligible to take the national certification exam, which is given by the American Society for Clinical Pathology Board of Registry. Although certification is not a legal requirement for a job as a cytotechnologist, most employers require it because it is proof of knowledge and skills.

There are two levels of certification. The first is CT (ASCP) certification, which you can attain by exam at or near completion of the cytotechnology program. For cytotechnologists certified after 2004, participation in the ASCP Certification Program is required. To be eligible for recertification, an individual must earn 36 points in continuing education activities over a three-year period. One point must be related to safety. Two points must be related specifically to cytotechnology. After that, an individual is free to take electives of interest within the field.

After at least three years of practice as a certified cytotechnologist, you're eligible to take a higher level of certification exam. The designation SCT (ASCP) certifies you as a specialist in the field and may open the doors to opportunities for higher pay and supervisory responsibilities. Participation in the ASCP Certification Program is required for all those who earned initial specialist certification after January 2006. For recertification, the specialist must earn 1 point in continuing education for safety, 10 points in cytotechnology and the remaining 25 points in a related area of their choosing.

Some states require licensure for individuals performing diagnostic laboratory tests. Check with an academic adviser if you're not sure how to go about getting a license in the state where you plan to work.

It is not possible to fulfill requirements for an accredited cytotechnology program 100 percent online because of the clinical nature of the discipline. At present, the University of Nebraska is the only accredited program that offers an online component to its curriculum. The university has thousands of annotated images posted online for students to study. It also has several satellite sites, including the University of California Davis Medical Center, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and the Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Illinois. The satellite sites exist to give students some flexibility in choosing where to complete the clinical portion of their studies. The one-year program includes 22 weeks of supervised clinical practice.

Work Environment

Cytotechnologists work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, university-affiliated medical centers, public health facilities and private laboratories. Some work in government laborites at the state or federal level. Some work on publicly or privately funded research projects, while still others find teaching positions in the field.

Cytotechnologists are predominantly women. They make up about 77 percent of the current workforce. Most report a high level of job satisfaction. Cytotechnologists typically work full time during regular business hours, but facilities may offer shift work or flexible hours to attract qualified employees. Large facilities may require a cytotechnologist to be on duty at all times, so evening, weekend and holiday work may be part of the schedule.

The work environment itself is typically clean, well lit and temperature controlled. The job is not physically demanding in that it does not typically require much standing, bending or lifting. However, cytotechnologists spend a lot of time sitting and looking through a microscope. Prolonged work at a microscope can lead to stress in the neck and back muscles. There is a risk of repetitive stress injury, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, from repeated hand motions.

Cytotechnologists may work with infectious specimens. Because they are highly trained in methods of infection control and sterilization, the actual risk of becoming infected with a disease is low.

Salary and Job Outlook

The average annual salary for a cytotechnologist is $75,134. The most significant factor affecting pay is geographic location. Salaries are highest in the New York metropolitan and San Francisco Bay areas, the two regions of the country with the highest costs of living. Pay is usually lower in rural areas of the South and the upper Midwest. Other factors influencing salary are education level, certifications, additional skills and years of experience. The majority of full-time workers have medical, vision and dental benefits. Other benefits include paid holidays and vacations. Some employers offer tuition assistance or reimbursement for costs associated with continuing education, which is required to maintain certification.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts job growth for medical technologists and technicians to be 12 percent through 2026, which is much faster than average compared to all other jobs. The Bureau does not specifically track cytotechnologist job growth, so the availability of opportunities may vary according to geographic location and the number of professionals in the field. During the 1970s, there were 120 accredited cytotechnology programs in the U.S. That number has dwindled to 28. Fewer people are entering the field to replace those who are retiring, but new diagnostic techniques, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other types of imaging, may lessen the demand for cell and fluid analysis.


Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.

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