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Much of a pathology laboratory's work is performed by generalists, either laboratory technicians or more highly trained technologists. However, many laboratories also employ specialized technicians or technologists in areas such as histology. Histology technicians are responsible for turning tissue samples into slides to prepare them for review and evaluation by cytotechnologists and pathologists.
A pathology lab's work revolves around the testing of blood, tissue, urine and other samples collected from patients or -- in research laboratories -- from research animals. Histology technicians work with tissue samples from living patients or cadavers, preparing them for examination by other skilled professionals. Each sample represents a potential biohazard that could infect the laboratory staff and spread throughout the facility, so histotechnicians must wear protective equipment when appropriate and remain mindful of proper procedure at all times. This also protects the samples from potential contamination.
Samples that arrive in a lab may be in any shape and size. Often they are unsuited to direct viewing under a microscope. Turning these samples into a usable microscope slide represents the bulk of a histotechnician's work. Samples may be frozen or embedded in a solid medium, then sliced microscopically thin on a device called a microtome. The resulting sliver of tissue sometimes requires treatment with a stabilizer or preservative to prevent it from deteriorating. Most samples must also be tinted once they're mounted on the slide, to improve contrast and make the cells' internal structures more visible. For some complex tests, the technician might defer the choice of a stain to a technologist.
Aside from the histotechnician's clinical duties, they may be required to address additional tasks in a typical work day. For example, the technician might be responsible for retrieving samples from other departments or receiving incoming samples as they're delivered to the lab. This involves appropriately storing and handling the samples; keeping accurate records; and ensuring that the sample and its corresponding test results remain linked to the correct patient. The histotechnician shares responsibility for keeping the laboratory clean and sanitary, sterilizing equipment after every use, and maintaining appropriate levels of disposable or consumable supplies.
Histology technicians typically enter the field with a two-year associate degree from a technical or community college, although it's also possible to complete a similar training program at some hospitals. Voluntary certification is available through the American Society for Clinical Pathology and can improve the technician's employability and prospects for promotion. Ambitious histotechnicians can obtain a bachelor's degree and become histotechnologists, who exercise greater responsibility and enjoy both higher pay and better prospects for advancement. A degree in business, management or healthcare administration can also provide a path to promotion for technicians with the appropriate organizational and management skills.
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