Heroes Behind the Scenes: Medical Lab Professionals Play Crucial Role in Fight Against COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of medical laboratory professionals. Below, we’ll take a closer look at how medical lab technicians and medical lab scientists are playing a crucial part in the response to COVID-19.
We’ll do that with help from Audrey Anderson, MSM, MT(ASCP), an assistant professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) with nearly four decades of experience in the medical laboratory field. We’ll also explore why the medical lab profession can be a great career choice.
Understanding the roles of medical lab professionals
Before we get into the roles that medical lab professionals are playing in the fight against COVID-19, let’s first be clear on who we’re talking about.
Medical lab technicians and medical lab scientists generally work behind the scenes conducting tests that help doctors and other healthcare professionals prevent, diagnose, monitor, and treat illnesses and diseases.
Their work may be more important than you realize. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “70% of today’s medical decisions depend on laboratory test results.”
NWHSU’s Anderson says that’s exactly why medical lab professionals are so crucial. “They’re the ones who need to produce high-quality results. And when it comes to the pandemic, those results are critical in numerous ways. For example, they help authorities like the CDC track the virus and make vital public health decisions.”
Although the roles of a medical lab technician and a medical lab scientist are similar, they also differ in key ways. Let’s take a closer look.
A medical lab technician vs. a medical lab scientist
Medical lab technicians typically work in clinics or other healthcare facilities that provide lab services. They use specialized medical instruments and technology to conduct a variety of testing and analysis on specimens taken from patients. Although they may have some direct patient contact, the bulk of their duties and responsibilities is in the lab.
A common path to becoming a medical lab technician is to complete a two-year associate degree program. For example, NWHSU offers an Associate of Science in Medical Laboratory Technology.
In addition, most employers require medical laboratory technicians to be certified. (See How to Become a Medical Laboratory Technician for more information.)
Note that with experience, a medical lab technician can pursue further education to become a medical laboratory scientist.
Medical lab scientists commonly perform more advanced and sophisticated hands-on lab tests in hospitals and large clinics. These procedures typically go beyond the more automated processes that a medical lab technician is likely to perform. Also, medical lab scientists often have lab leadership roles.
Working as a medical laboratory scientist requires at least a bachelor’s degree. For students meeting certain criteria, NWHSU offers a degree completion program that awards a Bachelor of Science in Medical Laboratory Science. (See How to Become a Medical Laboratory Scientist for more information.)
How are medical lab professionals helping in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
A range of healthcare professionals are playing critical roles in fighting the pandemic. NWHSU’s Anderson says that medical lab professionals are “right in the thick of that.”
According to Anderson from NWHSU, here are some specific ways that medical lab professionals are helping in the fight against COVID-19.
Collecting samples. Medical lab professionals are helping to collect samples from patients, often through a nose-swabbing procedure. “We have to be trained on how to collect the specimen properly,” says Anderson, “because an improper collection technique could create a false negative result.”
Processing samples. At smaller clinics and laboratories, medical lab professionals typically need to get the samples ready for safe transport to another lab where the actual testing takes place.
“I help out part-time at a local clinic. I’ve worn the PPE [personal protective equipment] from head to toe, collecting samples as well as getting them ready for the next step. Carrying out these pre-testing steps carefully is absolutely critical,” Anderson says.
Testing samples. COVID-19 testing in the beginning was largely manual, says Anderson. Over time it has become automated. But even with automation, she says that medical lab professionals trained in COVID-19 related procedures are essential in carrying out the steps needed to determine a positive or negative COVID-19 result.
The skills needed to perform COVID-19 testing are highly specialized, says Anderson. In addition to the years of training and medical education required to be a medical lab professional, Anderson says, “You’re looking at anywhere from three to six months of additional training before you’re ever let loose on an instrument by yourself to test for COVID-19.”
Trouble-shooting problems and performing quality assurance. Along with performing actual tests, medical lab scientists oversee the testing procedures, says Anderson.
“If there are any issues or problems that come up, the technician is going to rely on the medical lab scientist for support. The scientist is the one who makes the higher level decisions on, for example, whether you’re getting a high quality result or if the test needs to be repeated.”
Performing genetic analysis. Especially in a viral pandemic situation, being able to understand gene mutation is crucial for tracking—and fighting—the virus, says Anderson.
“Take the recent COVID-19 variants that are potentially more transmissible. It’s medical lab scientists that are actually looking at the molecular genetics of these viruses to determine what the mutation is that causes new strains.”
Greater respect AND more diversity: A bright future for medical lab professionals
“I think to a degree the pandemic has put a spotlight on the importance of medical lab professionals,” Anderson says. “And I’m seeing more focus from the media on what they do and why they’re so essential.”
She says the attention is welcome because the healthcare system needs more medical lab professionals. “There’s been a shortage of them for many years.”
On top of that, Anderson says medical labs are becoming more and more diverse. And that’s an exciting development to her.
“I’ve been in the field for 39 years, and I’ve seen firsthand how labs are attracting a broader range of people. And as a professor, I’m now teaching classes to the most diverse student population I’ve ever seen. And that’s going to be a huge boost to the medical lab world.”
Take the next step toward becoming a medical lab professional
Now that you have a better understanding of just how critical medical lab professionals are, you may want to find out more. Take the next step by checking out How to Become a Medical Laboratory Technician and How to Become a Medical Laboratory Scientist.
And if you’d like to talk to someone right away about becoming a medical lab professional, contact NWHSU today!