Sunday, 7 July 2013

What is Medical Laboratory Science?

As shocking as this is, I realized I have not done a post on a question I get asked frequently - What is Medical Laboratory Science? What do you do?

There are many names for Medical Laboratory Scientists. In Canada, we are referred to as Medical Laboratory Technologists. In US, we can be called Clinical Laboratory Scientists and in the UK we can be called Biomedical Scientists. All of these are correct terms ad we are all certified to do the same thing.

What do we do?

Taken straight off the Wikipedia page "A healthcare professional who performs chemicalhematologicalimmunologicmicroscopic, and bacteriological diagnostic analyses on body fluids such as bloodurinesputumstoolcerebrospinal fluid (CSF), peritoneal fluid, pericardial fluid, and synovial fluid, as well as other specimens." In other words, any time a specimen is sent to "the lab", we are analyzing it.

We ensure results are accurate and reliable. Sources quote that up to 85% of patient diagnosis are made using lab tests so it is important for these results to be accurate to get the appropriate diagnosis. We know many ways results can be affected and what to expect in certain clinical conditions. We are also able to run expensive, sophisticated machinery and perform quality control to ensure the results are reliable.
Where can we practice?

As a technologist we are fully trained in 5 disciplines:

1) Clinical Chemistry - The study of chemicals in body fluids. This includes tests such as glucose, thyroid hormone levels, sweat chloride tests, liver enzyme panels, Serum protein electrophoresis for myelomas, and drug toxicology.

2) Hematology - Analysis of blood cells and specimens. Here this includes CBC (Complete Blood Counts) which are used to diagnosis leukemias, infections and anemias. We can also do body fluid counts, ESRs and coagulation tests.

3) Histology - The study of tissues. Tissue biopsies and specimens are processed and fixed, embedded in wax, cut into thin 4um sections on a microtome, dried in an oven then stained using various staining techniques. The slides are then given to the pathologist to analyze in cases such as autopsies, biopsies and consults.

4) Microbiology - Analysis of specimens for microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, parasites). We process stool, urine, sputum, various swabs as well as analysis infection control specimens. We have knowledge of many types of bacteria, viruses and parasite that cause infections and what tests to run to identify them. We also perform antibiotic susceptibilities to ensure the bacteria will be susceptible for treatment.

5) Transfusion Medicine (Blood Bank) - Prepare blood and blood products for transfusion purposes. Here we do "type and screens" on patients and cross-match blood to give the correct type of blood for a patient. We also perform important antibody screens, which could cause a transfusion reaction if not identified.  These are quite a bit of work and can take hours, even days to properly confirm the presence of an antibody as well as possibly have special typed blood shipped in.

Are we regulated?

Yes. In Canada, the US and the UK we are required to write a certifying exam in order to be eligible to practice at a Medical Laboratory Scientist. This ensures the proper results are being produced, analyzed and sent out.

What is the difference between a Technologist and a Technician?

In Canada, a technologist is a regulated profession and can only be practiced by someone certified either through A) completing a college or university program and writing the certifying exam or b) from a prior learning assessment and writing the exam. Once someone has passed the board exam, they must register with their provincial body to practice as a technologist. Currently you can obtain a 4 year B.Sc in Medical Laboratory Science or an Advanced College Diploma of 2-3 years in length. Typically, the technologist is doing more complex analysis and knows the many factors to consider before releasing results as being correct and accurate.

A technician or assistant, can be someone who has completed a science degree, or anyone who has the desire to work in a laboratory. If they decide to attend a program they are usually 1 year in length. It is currently an unregulated profession but there is an exam you can write to become certified while it is currently not required, it is starting to become more popular. Generally, the technician does specimen procurement (phlebotomy), processing and pre-analytical procedures and does not do any analysis on results.

And now you are completed educated on what we do! Just kidding, there is a lot more to it but hopefully this gives you a little bit of insight into what us MLT's do and you can appreciate all the work that goes into your "lab work" the next time you have it done.

-K

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