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Medical Technologist Education, Schools, and Career Overview

If you've seen an episode of a hospital drama TV show, then you may have noticed that a great deal of the detective work involved in diagnosing various conditions takes place outside of the patient's room, in labs equipped with sophisticated equipment designed to analyze everything from blood and cellular structure to fungi and bacteria. In the real world of medicine, much of this behind-the-scenes analysis is carried out by the highly trained scientists in lab coats known as medical technologists. These are the clinical analysts who carry out tests crucial in determining the biological causes of disease — the laboratory scientists of the health care industry. Indeed, medical technologists are also commonly referred to as medical laboratory scientists, and medical technologist degrees often fall under the heading of clinical laboratory science.

Medical technologists work behind the scenes, performing a range of tasks that deal with preparing, studying and analyzing laboratory specimens. From microscopic to hematological analysis, medical technologists prepare tissues, body fluids and other items to be tested in various laboratory settings, including physician offices, hospitals, clinical labs and more.

Medical technologists are also commonly known as medical laboratory technologists, clinical laboratory technologists, and clinical scientists.

Medical Technologist Duties

The day-to-day work of a technologist can include collecting and preparing blood and tissues samples, microscopic and chemical analysis of specimens, checking lab reports, calibrating equipment and delivering test results to physicians and patients. In larger hospitals and testing facilities, medical technologists and technicians work in specialized groups: there are blood bank technologists, immunology technologists, microbiology technologists, and molecular biology technologists and cytotechnologists.

How to Become a Medical Technologist

Becoming a medical technologist begins with a solid grounding in the life sciences. The BLS suggests that, "high school students interested in pursuing a career in the medical laboratory sciences should take courses in chemistry, biology, and mathematics." Four-year bachelor's degree programs in medical technology and medical laboratory science also cover chemistry, biology, and mathematics, as well as microbiology, statistics, and clinical laboratory skills. Some of the other courses that are commonly part of a medical technologist's training include:

  • Phlebotomy -- proper protocols for drawing and testing blood for analysis, transfusions, and research.
  • Bacteriology -- the branch of medical microbiology that deals with cultivating and identifying bacteria affecting human health.
  • Hematology -- the study of diseases of the blood.
  • Mycology -- the biology of fungi affecting human health.
  • Immunodiagnostics -- the analysis of antigen-antibody reactions in the human body.

Due to the sophisticated nature of the laboratory equipment used by medical technologists and the sensitive nature of patient care and treatment, clinical training is integral to medical technology and medical laboratory science degree programs. In place of less formal internships, many hospital offer such training for students in the their final year of college study to insure that newly certified medical technologists are familiar with the tools of the trade, from automated chemistry and hematology analyzers, to software for laboratory information systems and electronic medical records.

Medical technologist degree programs

Work as a technician in a medical lab typically requires a one- to two-year associate degree or postsecondary certificate. However, medical technologists are entrusted with greater responsibilities, which can include overseeing the work of technicians and other laboratory staff. So, becoming a medical technologist calls for a higher level of training, typically in the form of a four-year bachelor's degree program. Some colleges and universities offer specialized Bachelor of Science degree programs in medical technology or medical laboratory science, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) notes that a B.S. in one of the life sciences, like biology, is also acceptable.

In addition, schools associated with medical institutions often include clinical courses of study in hospital settings that students attend during their senior year. For further training and specialization, there are master of science degree programs available in medical technology and related fields (clinical laboratory science and medical research), but ONet Online's latest numbers from 2013 indicate that only 5 percent of people working in the field held master's degrees.

Medical technologist schools

Typically a degree in medical technology can be earned from a larger four-year university. There are some online programs for this field as well.

What types of courses are included in a medical technology degree program? Each medical technology bachelor’s degree will differ in the courses required to graduate, but there are some main courses all programs include. Examples of classes typically in a medical technology program include:

  • Human anatomy and physiology – the study of the body, its processes, and how everything works together
  • Mathematics, including statistics
  • Microbiology – the study of organisms and bacteria
  • Lab Management
  • Chemistry –this class usually pertains to more of the clinical level of chemistry such as how your body produces chemicals and uses byproducts.
  • Coagulation –pertains to the process your blood goes through in order to clot, and how to determine different types of deficiencies
  • Disease Processes – the processes of disease and how medications can affect those processes
  • Hematology – the study of red and white blood cells and what is present in these cells during disease states and illnesses

Each school and medical technology program has different requirements in terms of internships, however almost all programs require some type of internship or practical experience in order to graduate. Some programs require just one semester, and others require a full year of clinical rotations. There are even programs that allow students to take classes online their final semester so they have the ability to relocate. Oftentimes, especially due to the shortage of medical technologists, students are hired at the lab or hospital they complete their clinical rotation at.

Medical technologist training

Medical technologist training is not complete without passing the certification exam. Medical technologists nationwide are required to pass a national board exam administered by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). Recently there was a merger between two different accrediting bodies; the ASCP and the National Credentialing Agency for Laboratory Personnel (NCALP). The education required to sit for either certification exam was the same; a bachelor’s degree in medical technology or another science related major. The only difference was that someone who sat for the ASCP exam would earn the credentials “MT” for Medical Technologist and those who sat for the NCALP would earn the CLS credentials for Clinical Laboratory Scientist. Following the merger the credentials a person who passes the exam now earns are Medical Laboratory Scientist (MLS).

In order to sit for the ASCP certification exam a person must have graduated from an accredited bachelor’s degree program in medical technology or a science-based field. While those with a science-based degree are able to sit for the exam, it is advantageous and advised to graduate from an actual medical technology program because it better prepares one to pass this complex exam.

The cumulative exam is computer-based and includes all multiple-choice questions. Each question is weighed in terms of difficulty so if a person continues to answer questions correctly, the test then provides more difficult questions which lessens the total number of questions one has to answer. The test includes different sections related to the different fields of study in a medical technology degree program. Sections tested include: hematology, coagulation, immunology, immunohematology, chemistry and microbiology. Tests are offered at a variety of testing centers at different times based on the location of choice.

Medical technologist licensure

To practice anywhere in the United States, medical technologists must be certified through the American Society for Clinical Pathology. However, only a handful of states additionally require state licensure to practice; California and New York being two of them. For the states that require a licensure to practice as a medical technologist, typically an exam must be passed that is specific to the scope of practice in that state.

Continuing education for medical technologists

The American Society of Clinical Pathology requires 30 continuing education units every three years in order for medical technologists to maintain their credential. Oftentimes these credits can be earned through ones employer without charge, and there are also seminars and a plethora of other opportunities for continuing education.

Medical Technologist Skills and Qualifications

By definition, medical technologists require a deep knowledge and familiarity with the instruments of a medical laboratory. ONet Online points out that critical thinking and complex problem solving skills are also an important part of what goes into being a successful medical technologist, as is the ability to carefully apply scientific methodology. Medical technologists may not deal as directly with patients as doctors and nurses, but the work a technologist performs in the lab is a key component of a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Most bachelor degree programs include at least one year of clinical experience in a hospital setting, and many hospitals offer such training to qualified applicants. Medical technologist certification, which is required by many states, requires at least one full year working full-time in a clinical setting.

The American Society of Clinical Pathologists Board of Certification lists, as a prerequisite, two years of clinical lab experience in blood banking, chemistry, hematology, microbiology, immunology and urinalysis/body fluids. It is also expected that applicants will have completed a range of coursework in biological sciences, chemistry and mathematics. Other subjects typically covered as part of a degree program include:

  • Phlebotomy
  • Bacteriology
  • Hematology
  • Mycology
  • Immunodiagnostics

In addition, medical technologists need to be familiar with software applications for laboratory information systems and electronic medical records.

Medical Technologist Salary and Career Outlook

Salaries for medical technologists and similar occupations vary due to factors like experience, level of education, and location. Here’s a snapshot of salary data for occupations similar to medical technologists:

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians$53,230$29,640$79,530
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Positions for these and simliar occupations may expect job growth, partly due to an increase in the number of doctors and medical workers needed to provide services to the aging baby boomer population. Here's data to get an idea of what job growth could look like for medical technologists and related jobs in the coming years:

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians322,38012.7%
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Sources:

  • Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologist and Technician, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-and-clinical-laboratory-technologists-and-technicians.htm
  • Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologist, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292011.htm·          Summary Report for: Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologist, ONet Online, 2013, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-2011.00#Education
  • Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary, 2014, http://www.merriam-webster.com/browse/medical/a.htm
  • Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologist and Technician, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-and-clinical-laboratory-technologists-and-technicians.htm
  • Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologist, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292011.htm
  • Summary Report for: Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologist, ONet Online, 2013, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-2011.00#Education
  • Technologist/Scientist Certification, American Society of Clinical Pathologists Board of Certification, 2014, http://www.ascp.org/Board-of-Certification/GetCertified#tabs-1
  • Medical Technologist Certification/Education, American Medical Technologists, 2014, http://www.americanmedtech.org/GetCertified/MTEligibility.aspx#141980-route-1-education
  • American Medical Technologist, Certifications, http://www.americanmedtech.org/GetCertified.aspx
  • National Society for Histotechnology, 2013 Wage Survey of Clinical Laboratories in the US, http://www.nsh.org/sites/default/files/2013%20ASCP%20Wage%20Survey.pdf
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, OOH, Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-and-clinical-laboratory-technologists-and-technicians.htm
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, OES, Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292011.htm 

Medical Technologist Schools