Medical Laboratory Science: The Hidden Profession That Saves Lives

On 17/Oct/2015 / In Articles

As an undergraduate microbiology major and MS student in virology, I envisioned a career in the clinical laboratory at some exciting hospital conducting microbiological testing to identify disease-causing microbes.
After graduating and starting my job search, I quickly learned that I was mistaken. 
To conduct diagnostic laboratory testing in a clinical environment, like a hospital laboratory and most reference laboratories (which provide services for physicians), I needed to be certified or licensed as a medical laboratory scientist (MLS) or medical laboratory technician (MLT).
After learning that I would be unable to work in a hospital laboratory, I decided to go to work for the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) in the Bureau of Laboratories as a public health microbiologist. I worked in a variety of areas, including newborn screening and virology.
Later, I was a molecular epidemiologist for the DSHS Zoonosis Control Division, where I became sort of a hybrid employee between the laboratory and in the field tracking zoonotic disease agents (for example, rabies, hantavirus and plague) as a molecular epidemiologist. It was a fantastic experience and provided a strong foundation for the span of my career. I was one of the original members of the successful Oral Rabies Vaccination Program in Texas that eliminated wildlife rabies from coyotes and foxes in the 1990s. I also worked with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to establish the DSHS Regional Rabies Typing Laboratory as the first state public health laboratory to provide rabies typing for other states and countries.
It was in the DSHS laboratory that I first became acquainted with a "med tech" and what his educational background and profession involved.
Medical laboratory science involves diagnostic laboratory testing from A to Z. These professionals do everything from providing your cancer testing results, to predicting the correct antibiotic to prescribe, to typing the correct blood for surgery. MLS professionals provide answers to life-and-death decisions every day.
I was fascinated – and disappointed – that I had not learned of this amazing career choice (and major) while I was in college. In fact, I was right across the street from an MLS program while I was obtaining my microbiology and virology degree.
This is an important thing to mention because MLS as a college major is often in an Allied Health program or the College of Health Professions, not in the College of Science where my microbiology courses were. 
As MLS program chair, I have had so many students and alumni tell me: "If only I had known about the MLS major sooner." 
In our program, about 40 percent to 50 percent of students who apply to our major already have a BS, or even an MS or PhD, in another major (such as microbiology, biology or biomedical studies), but they are either unable to find a job or they find out they can't work in a clinical laboratory without the degree and MLS certification.
Callie Megan Wright, MS, MLS, MB (ASCP)CM is a Texas State University alumna from 2009. She works at Clinical Pathology Laboratories in Austin, Texas, where she is responsible for setting up and evaluating molecular diagnostic tests and quality control.Callie Megan Wright, MS, MLS, MB (ASCP)CM is a Texas State University alumna from 2009. She works at Clinical Pathology Laboratories in Austin, Texas, where she is responsible for setting up and evaluating molecular diagnostic tests and quality control.
In my case, I quickly became fascinated with the profession while working with so many wonderful medical lab scientists and medical lab technologists at DSHS. I learned that I could use my virology experience to get credit toward my certification, and went on to obtain my Specialty in Virology (SV) from the Board of Certification (BOC) of the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). The BOC is the primary certification agency for the medical laboratory profession. Eventually, after moving into academia, I acquired my Specialist in Microbiology (SM) and Molecular Biologist (MB) by the same route.
Have you ever wondered who conducts the detailed laboratory testing for your annual exam, such as cholesterol and glucose levels, and analyzes the results? Or who conducts specialized testing for genetic disorders like sickle cell disease? How about those who identify an antibiotic resistant infection like Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and determine which antibiotic is required to save someone's life? Well, if you thought that it was your physician, or perhaps a nurse or someone else you see at your doctor's office or in the hospital, you would be incorrect.
MLS professionals provide up to 70 percent of patients' laboratory testing to physicians so they can provide an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan, according to a 2002 study in Clinical Leadership and Management Review titled "The Value of the Laboratory Professional in the Continuum of Care." In that study, author Rodney Forsman, Administrative Director Emeritus of the Mayo Clinic Medical Laboratories and President of the Clinical Laboratory Management Association, stated that 94 percent of the objective medical data in the patient record comes from the laboratory professionals.
Doctors rely on laboratory test results to make informed patient diagnoses. Patient history along with physical signs and symptoms are vital, but most diagnoses need confirmation that only laboratory tests can provide. The laboratory professionals also contribute to wellness testing, guiding treatment, and monitoring patient progress.
What is a Medical Laboratory Professional?
Medical Laboratory Scientists (MLS) and Medical Laboratory Technicians (MLT) — also known as Clinical Laboratory Scientists (CLS) — perform laboratory tests on patient samples to provide information needed to diagnose or monitor treatment. Examples of common laboratory tests include tests to detect anemia, diagnose diabetes and strep throat, and provide a transfusion to an accident victim.
Professional duties include:
Operating computerized instruments
Identifying abnormal cells
Assuring safe transfusion of blood products
Culturing and identifying bacteria and viruses
Correlating test results with patient's condition
Selecting and evaluating lab equipment
Selecting, orienting and evaluating employees
Monitoring the quality of testing
Source: NAACLS Standards for Accredited and Approved Programs


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