Medical laboratory science is a health profession that provides diagnostic services to detect and treat disease. The laboratory data is crucial to clinicians for diagnosing disease and implementing treatment.
Medical laboratory science (MLS) is the health profession that provides diagnostic services needed to detect and treat disease. Diagnostic services include critical chemical, hematological, immunologic, microscopic, and bacteriological analyses on blood, tissues, and bodily fluids that aid in a patient’s overall diagnosis.
Clinicians depend on accurate laboratory data to diagnose diseases, while other medical professionals (e.g. nurses and pharmacists) rely on this information to plan or implement treatment and care for their patient. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, $9.3 billion was spent on clinical lab tests in 2021. Testing volume is expected to increase annually.
What Do Medical Laboratory Scientists Do?
Laboratory work is done by a medical lab scientist. Medical laboratory scientists perform a variety of lab tests, ensure the quality of the specimen and test results, interpret and explain the significance of laboratory tests, log data, evaluate new methods and study the effectiveness of lab tests. As you can surmise, much of the work is hands-on.
They also perform calibration, maintenance, validation, and troubleshooting of instrumentation, and perform statistical analyses to verify the accuracy and repeatability of testing. They consult with healthcare providers on test selection and specimen collection and are responsible for prompt verbal delivery of critical lab results. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 14 billion lab tests are conducted annually. It is estimated 70% of medical decisions are based on lab test results.
Examples of popular laboratory tests performed by Medical Laboratory Scientists include:
- Complete Blood Count (CBC) measures the types and numbers of cells in the blood, including red and white blood cells and platelets. A CBC is used to determine general health status, screen for disorders and evaluate nutritional status. It can help evaluate symptoms such as weakness, fatigue and bruising, and can help diagnose conditions such as anemia, leukemia, malaria and infection.
- Urinalysis checks the appearance, content and concentration of urine. Urinalysis detects and manages a wide range of disorders, such as urinary tract infections, kidney disease and diabetes.
- Prothrombin Time (PT) measures how long it takes blood to clot. This coagulation test measures the presence and activity of five different blood clotting factors. It can screen for bleeding abnormalities, and can be used to monitor medication treatments that prevent the formation of blood clots.
- Lipid Panel is used to evaluate cardiac risk and includes cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Other tests can help with:
- Detection of the abnormal cells that cause leukemia;
- Cross-matching blood for transfusions;
- Analysis of cardiac enzyme activity released during a heart attack;
- Identification of the type of bacteria causing an infection; and
- Detection of DNA markers for genetic diseases.
Medical lab scientists work in a variety of settings like hospitals, clinics, forensic or public health laboratories, research institutions, and in many industries such as pharmaceutical and biotechnology. Work hours may vary based on the work setting; but typically labs are run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Many medical laboratory scientists will work varying shifts such as 6 a.m.–2:30 p.m., 11 p.m.–7:30 a.m., etc.
What Other Careers are There in Medical Laboratory Science?
Some other common careers include:
- Cytotechnologist: Prepare and evaluate cellular samples from all body sites, under the direction of a pathologist to detect pre-cancerous changes, cancer, benign tumors and infectious agents.
- Histotechnologist: Prepares and performs routine and complex histologic techniques (i.e., enzyme histochemistry, immunohistochemistry, immunofluorescence) on tissue samples for microscopic examination by a pathologist to diagnose disease.
- Pathologists’ Assistant: Provides anatomic pathology services under the direction and supervision of a pathologist to perform gross examination and dissection of surgical pathology specimens and performance of postmortem examinations.
- Specialist in Blood Banking: Performs all operations in the blood bank from routine testing to the most advanced procedures and are technical supervisors and laboratory managers.
- Technologist in Blood Banking: Performs routine and specialized tests in blood banking and transfusion services to identify blood types and antibodies to support physicians in blood transfusion therapy.
- Technologist in Chemistry: Performs analysis on blood and body fluids to determine the quantity of chemical and/or hormonal content in the specimen.
- Technologist in Cytogenetics: Prepare and performs chromosomal analyses on biological specimens to assist in the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of acquired and inherited genetic diseases.
- Technologist in Hematology: Performs tests to identify coagulation disorders, and studies morphology of blood constituents to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the blood.
- Technologist in Microbiology: Identifies bacteria and microorganisms in tissue samples and body fluids to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases.
- Technologist in Molecular Biology: Performs molecular biologic methods including sequencing and proteomic analysis to characterize acquired and inherited diseases to help diagnosis malignant, metabolic and infectious diseases.
NOTE: Above list of jobs from ASCP.
What Skills Do Medical Laboratory Scientists Need?
There are a number of skills you need to be successful as a medical lab scientist. They include:
- Communication: Present findings in a clear and concise manner in oral and written form. Provide recommendations when medical professionals seek testing advice.
- Detail-oriented: Know intimate details about the data such as source, definition, meaning, origin, dependencies, and quality, etc.
- Manual dexterity: Possess the gross/fine motor skills and hand/eye coordination to safely perform diagnostic procedures which includes performing phlebotomy, using chemicals, specimens, microbiology cultures, laboratory instruments and equipment, and computers.
- Visual Acuity: Differentiate different colors and shades, characterize clarity and viscosity of medical specimens, reagents, and chemical reaction end products. Examine microscopic specimens and be able to differentiate color, shading, and structural differences. Read text, numbers, and graphs in print, on computer monitors, and hand-writing. Judge distance, depth, and 2 or 3 dimensional structures to skillfully perform and analyze tests.
- Independent: Be able to work independently, with flexibility and be adaptable to change.
- Intellectual and Creative Thinking: Perform complex interpretive testing, possess troubleshooting skills, and exercise sound judgment. Recognize and correct deviations in testing. Prioritize work, be productive, and accurate within realistic time allowances.
- Passion: A passion to work in the medical field and help others behind the scenes of doctors and nurses.
Reference a full list of essential functions.
What Are the Educational Requirements of a Medical Laboratory Scientist?
Educational requirements include:
- 4 year degree in Medical Lab Science
- Required clinical internship (aka practicum)
- Pass a national certification exam
To become Board-Certified, you will need to complete your bachelor’s degree and a clinical internship.
Students interested in becoming a medical lab scientist will often work in hospital or other healthcare settings to become familiar with the medical ailments, terminology, and job roles they will be working with. Working as either a laboratory assistant (where you prepare and process samples among other duties) or as a phlebotomist (drawing blood of patients for testing) is a great way to gain experience. Participating in scientific research often gives students practice in performing laboratory tests and techniques.
You will complete a 4-12 month clinical laboratory program or internship through a university- or hospital-based program (practicum). Upon completion of the clinical internship, students become eligible to sit for a national certification exam. Successful completion of the exam rewards one with national certification as a medical laboratory scientist (MLS). Most employers require medical laboratory scientists to obtain certification through an accrediting body, such as the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification (BOC) or American Medical Technologists (AMT). After passing the credentialing exam, medical laboratory scientists (MLS) can practice under credentials such as MLS(ASCP)CM or MLS (AMT).
Finally, in order to fully practice, licensure by the state may be required depending on where you live.
How Much Do Medical Laboratory Scientists Earn?
The median salary for a medical lab scientist in the United States is $57,800, though salaries can range between $50,000-$80,600, depending upon where you live. Currently there is a national shortage so salaries are extremely competitive depending on education, location, and previous experience. See salary ranges by state, number of available positions, and other information.
With additional training and experience, a medical lab scientist can become a department lead or lab manager. Others may seek specializations to advance their careers. Both routes can lead to higher rates of pay that go along with more responsibility and more specialization.
The Future of Medical Laboratory Science
Job growth and security is high for medical laboratory scientists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is currently a shortage of medical lab scientists in many parts of the country which guarantees ample employment opportunities and sometimes higher salaries for graduates. With the volume of laboratory tests continuing to increase due to both population growth and the development of new types of tests, job opportunities are expected to increase.
And demand for medical laboratory science is expected to continue to grow as the population ages. An older population contracts more health conditions like chronic kidney and heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, leading to a greater need for diagnoses. Prenatal testing for various types of genetic conditions also is increasingly common.
As a result, employment is expected to grow 7 percent from 2021 to 2031. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts about 21,800 openings for medical laboratory scientists each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Medical Laboratory Science at Michigan Tech
The Bachelor of Science Degree in Medical Lab Science at Michigan Tech offers a pragmatic, qualitative education with a strong understanding of hematology, immunology, molecular biology, clinical chemistry, medical terminology, microbiology, anatomy and physiology, and more.
Students can get involved outside the classroom with any number of professional organizations—Society of Medical Laboratory Scientists (SMLS), Microbiology Club, Phi Sigma, the Pre-Health Association at Tech (PHAT), and more.
Students can pursue undergraduate research. Many undergraduate students choose to take on research, gaining hands-on experience in the lab, doing more than just washing dishes. Research projects often require students to collect samples, record data, analyze results, etc. Many opportunities may even be paid, depending on the availability of funds on the particular project.
- Students are encouraged to apply to the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, which offers summer fellowships for paid work on undergraduate research projects. Undergraduates conduct research with faculty members for approximately 10 weeks. Awards of up to $4,000 are available.
- All undergraduate students are able to apply to the Undergraduate Research Internship Program. Award recipients conduct a research project under the guidance of a Michigan Tech faculty mentor during the regular academic year. Afterwards, they will present their work at the Undergraduate Research Symposium. Awards up to $1,600 are available.
- Scholarships are available to MLS students as freshmen all the way through their senior year.
The Health Research Institute is a renown health research center on campus, tackling a variety of health-related challenges, whether that is developing material for better wound care, creating vaccines, studying alcohol’s effects on the nervous system, designing a magnetoelastic sensor for use in an artificial knee, or growing heart muscle cells faster and stronger with less chance of rejection.
Get ready to contribute on the job from day one with these valuable experiences.
- H-STEM Enterprise Team: Students get project-based experiences that ultimately aim to improve human health. The team includes students from a broad range of backgrounds (e.g., biology, biochemistry, biomedical engineering, exercise science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, medical lab science, robotics). These students work collaboratively on projects in the areas of rehabilitation engineering, healthcare, and public health.
- Shadowing: Interested in a health profession? Observe a health professional in order to see what they really do on a day to day basis to see if that is the career you want.
- Emergency Medical Service (EMS): Gain valuable direct patient care experience by becoming a volunteer EMT with our Michigan Technological University Emergency Medical Service. Tech EMS services our campus and local area.