When you think “medical lab,” what comes to mind? Is it test tubes and beakers? What about butterfly needles and tourniquets? Or maybe it’s the testing agents and biohazard labels lining the shelves.
A career in the medical laboratory takes you behind the scenes of healthcare and gives you a perspective not many others have access to. From collecting specimen samples to analyzing test results, med lab professionals help connect the dots to get to the bottom of patient diagnoses, treatments, and recovery management.
The role of lab professionals
While you may not always see them in action, lab professionals work tirelessly to help identify patient illnesses or conditions. Think of these lab workers as disease detectives. But instead of a magnifying glass and a Sherlock Holmes hat, they use test tubes and testing equipment to analyze patient blood, urine, or other biological samples to get to the bottom of what’s causing them discomfort or pain.
“It’s hard to imagine a world without medical labs,” said Zhe Song, a lab supply manager at ABD. “Our society is built on the collective acceptance of scientific processes. In the healthcare system, doctors typically cannot diagnose a major illness without testing because insurance companies or governments use medical labs to know how to make fact-based decisions. At all levels of health, medical labs serve as the most reliable fact-checking mechanism. Because information can travel instantaneously, demand for fact checking is ever increasing.”
Usually, lab professionals aren’t patient-facing healthcare workers. Instead, they work backstage with specialized instruments that help determine what’s going on inside a patient. These behind-the-scenes heroes are often the first ones to spot cancer, diabetes, COVID-19, and other life-threatening conditions, making them invaluable to the entire healthcare system.
Lab specialties in demand
Of course, there are many types of lab professionals, and no two are the same. Lab professionals come from a broad base of expertise from chemistry to hematology to microbiology and more. Plus, lab teams are also responsible for pre-analytic work. These are the top five in-demand lab specialties:
No. 1: Medical lab technician (MLT)
A common entry point for pursuing a lab career is by becoming a medical lab technician (MLT) because it requires only a two-year degree to get started. As an MLT, you work under the supervision of a medical lab scientist (MLS) to analyze samples from patients, reset lab equipment, and enter patient information into the system.
Between 2020 and 2030, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the job outlook for MLTs to grow by 11 percent, which is must faster than the average for all occupations. During that time, approximately 25,900 MLT job openings will become available each year, on average.
Top states for MLT jobs:
No. 2: Medical lab scientist (MLS)
Working closely with MLTs are medical lab scientists. However, while MLTs only require a two-year degree, MLSs need a four-year degree since they have more responsibilities and work closely with physicians and other healthcare workers on a patient’s team.
Although they’re responsible for a wide variety of tasks, MLSs oversee lab techs and train others, analyze lab findings and verify results, relay test results to the patient’s healthcare team, monitor patient outcomes, perform differential cell counts, and more.
According to the BLS, from 2020 to 2030, the MLS profession is expected to grow by 17 percent, adding about 12,600 job openings each year over the 10-year period.
Top states for MLS jobs:
No. 3: Pathologist assistant
Experts in cells, bodily fluids, and human tissue, pathologists use their knowledge to research and identify diseases. Not only do pathologists research and examine diseases, but they also investigate why the disease occurred, how the tissues may have been damaged, and what functional changes took place. Lovingly referred to as “the doctor’s doctor,” pathologists conduct blood investigations, run blood sugar tests, examine biopsies, perform autopsies, and more.
To become a pathologist, you must first graduate from a four-year medical school and complete a residency. But it’s worth it! According to PayScale, pathologists can earn more than $200,000 a year depending on their education and experience level. Plus, the BLS reported that pathology jobs are expected to increase by 4 percent between 2019 and 2029, creating thousands of jobs in the meantime.
Top states for pathology jobs:
- West Virginia
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
No. 4: Histotechnologist
Histotechnologists work closely with pathologists. In order for pathologists to examine tissue samples, histotechnologists must first prepare the slices of human tissue for the pathologists to study. For example, if a patient is undergoing a tumor biopsy, a histotechnologist would gather the biopsy sample, arrange it under a microscope, and work alongside pathologists and other lab techs to diagnose the patient.
The demand for histotechnologists is booming with the BLS expecting job growth rate at 7 percent between 2019 and 2029. To become a histotechnologist, you can either earn an associate degree in a science-focused field and then work your way up to a specific histotechnology program. Alternatively, aspiring histotechnologists can pursue a bachelor’s degree and then pass the national certification exam to start a histotechnology career.
Top states for histotechnology jobs:
- New York
- West Virginia
- New Jersey
No. 5: Phlebotomist
If you want to work with patients and in the lab, you can get the best of both worlds as a phlebotomist. Professional phlebotomists work directly with patients by drawing blood for lab tests. In addition to blood samples, phlebotomists may also assist with other types of sample collection, like urine samples or nasal swabs.
“They’re also tasked with providing patient education on proper collection,” said Angela Bell, professor and program director of medical laboratory technology and phlebotomy at Tidewater Community College in Virginia. “Sometimes, patients have to collect samples at home, so the phlebotomist will educate them on the process.”
According to the BLS, phlebotomy jobs are expected to expand by a whopping 22 percent between 2020 and 2030. Because of such growth, an estimated 20,000 phlebotomy jobs will become available each year within the decade.
Top states for phlebotomy jobs:
- New Hampshire
- West Virginia
The demand for lab techs
You’ve heard of the nursing shortage. Now, get ready for the lab shortage. Since the 90s, lab training programs have been decreasing by nearly 25 percent, increasing the demand for these specialized techs year over year.
In addition, more Americans are reaching retirement age, changes are being implemented in the lab profession, and vacancy rates exceed the number of graduates. That, plus an aging workforce and the recent coronavirus pandemic has put the demand for clinical lab professionals over the edge.
The thing about lab work is it’s performed daily, especially in emergency and inpatient situations. Believe it or not, but lab tests are performed on over half of emergency patients and each year, there are more than 7 billion clinical lab tests completed. Some of the most common lab tests include:
- Complete blood count (CBC) to measure the types and number of blood cells
- Prothrombin time to measure how long it takes blood to clot
- Basic metabolic panel to measure glucose, sodium, potassium, calcium, chloride, carbon dioxide, blood urea nitrogen, and creatinine
- Lipid panel to evaluate cardiac risk
- Liver panel to assess liver function
- Hemoglobin A1C to diagnose and monitor diabetes
- Cultures to test for diagnosis and treatment of various infections
It’s no secret that medical lab professionals are on the frontlines of clinical decision-making. And as the cliché goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
Although your chances for landing a lab job are high, recruitment can still be a challenge for some healthcare hiring managers. Some of the biggest challenges faced include competitive pay, training and qualification, and lack of education requirements.
Luckily, when you use Fusion Marketplace to find your next lab job, you have first-hand access to the pay package details. Plus, when you use your Marketplace profile to apply for healthcare travel jobs, staffing agencies, recruiters, and hiring managers alike can review your profile to ensure you meet the necessary qualifications for your lab specialty. That way, the agency can instantly qualify you, and you can land your perfect lab job that much faster.