Television shows set in hospitals tend to focus on the doctors and nurses who work in high-stress, high-drama areas such as the surgical suite and emergency room. The life of a histology technician or other laboratory staff isn't nearly as dramatic, and that's part of the career's appeal. Histotechnicians and their laboratory colleagues play a large role in saving lives, but do it in a quiet and orderly atmosphere.
Many of the most telling indicators of diseases or medical conditions are only visible at the cellular level. Long before patients feel symptoms, the cells that make up the body's tissues begin to show abnormalities, developing an uncharacteristic appearance or functioning in ways they shouldn't. Doctors order tests when they suspect an illness, or to screen for a specific condition if the patient is considered to be at risk. Tests are performed on cell samples taken from various parts of the body, or from suspected tumors during a biopsy.
When the pathology lab receives the patient's tissue sample, it has to be converted into a suitable form for testing. Usually that means preparing it for viewing under a microscope, and that's the main part of a histotechnician's work. The process varies depending on the sample, but most must be trimmed to a convenient size, dehydrated, treated with a fixative or preservative, then sliced wafer-thin for the microscope slide. Finally, the sample is treated with a stain that will provide contrast and make it easier to see the cells' structure and condition.
Histology technicians perform some routine tests, often pre-screening samples for a pathologist or a laboratory technologist. Aside from preparing specimens and performing tests, technicians have other responsibilities in most labs. Some circulate through the hospital and collect specimens from other departments. Others might share responsibility for record-keeping, ensuring that each specimen and its test results go remain with the correct patient's file, and go out to the right physician. Technicians usually share responsibility for keeping the lab clean and sanitary, for sterilizing equipment, and for handling specimens according to the lab's standards. Some also order their own supplies, and maintain suitable inventory levels.
Career and Advancement
Histology technicians can enter the field with a two-year associate degree in laboratory science or a one-year certificate in histologic technology. Laboratory staff with training in other disciplines can also cross-train on the job, acquiring the necessary skills through practical experience. Certification for histology technicians is available through the American Society for Clinical Pathology. Candidates must pass a certification exam, and commit to a program of continuing education. Technicians with the necessary skills can advance to become supervisors, or can become technologists by returning to school and earning a bachelor's degree. Technologists earn more, exercise greater responsibility, and advance more quickly.