Although their job name implies that they assist higher-level professionals in scientific settings, laboratory assistants can perform many tasks independently or while under supervision. They are more accurately called medical and clinical laboratory technicians, because they perform laboratory tests necessary for accurate health care. Their duties depend on their educational background and specialties.
At the entry level, laboratory assistants need post-secondary education. Those who already have a medical background, such as nurses, can receive the required training through a one-year certificate program from hospitals. Otherwise, students need an associate degree from a technical school or community college. The Armed Forces also offers training. Senior-level or supervisory workers need a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory technology from a university. Educational programs typically cover laboratory skills and management, and include courses in biology, chemistry, math and statistics.
Doctors ask laboratory assistants to perform tests that diagnose and treat medical conditions. When starting out, assistants focus on simple procedures while under extensive supervision. As they gain more experience, they work more independently. They collect and analyze body samples, such as blood, urine and tissues; operate equipment, such as cell counters and microscopes; and record data in patient records. Their analyses depend on what they collect. For example, when examining blood, assistants count and identify cells, define cell morphology, and determine blood type. They may also meet with other healthcare staff to discuss results and procedures.
In small facilities, laboratory assistants may perform several types of tests. In larger labs, they often specialize. For example, cytotechnologists prepare slides of cells, which they examine under a microscope for abnormalities. Phlebotomists collect blood samples directly from patients. Histotechnicians stain tissue samples for pathologists, who study the progress of disease through a microscope. Microbiology specialists look at microorganisms such as bacteria, while molecular biology technologists handle nucleic acid tests on cell samples. Blood bank technologists, also called immunohematology technologists, collect and classify blood.
The ability to interact with people is an important factor for success as a laboratory assistant. Lab assistants must have good interpersonal skills to understand instructions from supervisors, and they must be able to lead and train junior assistants. Compassion is necessary when dealing with patients. For example, phlebotomists must be sensitive to a patient who is afraid of needles and blood. They must remain clam and professional even when a patient becomes agitated during a procedure. They must also be able to communicate verbally and in writing when receiving doctors’ orders and relaying test results.