By Jackie Fritz
The medical profession is a great fit for individuals who truly want to make a difference and contribute in a positive way to their community.
Medical laboratory technologists and assistants are key parts of the healthcare team. They are responsible for conducting routine lab tests as well as maintenance of lab equipment. Lab techs and assistants can be found in medical laboratories in hospitals, clinics, research institutions, post-secondary educational facilities and government research laboratories.
While their positions may overlap at times, generally lab technicians carry a larger responsibility. Just as nursing has members with different skill levels like nurses’ aides, licensed practical nurses and registered nurses, laboratory work also employs people with varying levels of education. Lab techs typically graduate from two to three-year programs of study. For those who can’t wait to get their gloves on, the lab assistant courses take around four to six months to complete.
Carman Poliwczuk is a Medical Laboratory Technician at Dynalife Medical Labs in Edmonton, Alberta. She explains, “Medical Lab Assistants do not operate instruments (other than in Urinalysis) or release patient results. They do not have the same training that lab technologists do. Their duties include blood collection, performing electrocardiograms (ECGs) urinalysis and data entry. They are also trained in processing samples for analysis such as spinning samples, loading samples on and off instruments and specimen storage. They can perform basic lab procedures such as cleaning and maintenance of centrifuges (used for spinning samples) and waterbaths.”
Medical lab techs (MLTs) use sophisticated equipment to run tests on blood, tissue and other bodily fluid samples to help physicians diagnose and treat their patients.
Poliwczuk says, “Medical laboratory technologists are trained in five different disciplines. They are Hematology, Chemistry, Blood Bank, Microbiology and Histology. I have experience in Chemistry but most of my career has been spent in Hematology. We look at the different cells found in the blood which are red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. We also measure hemoglobin levels. Together, these parameters make up the test called a CBC or CBCD. The instruments we run the blood samples on require maintenance and quality control every day. This ensures the results we give are accurate. We look at blood slides under the microscope. We examine fluid samples from joints, chest and abdominal cavities as well. In chemistry, we run large instruments that test for liver function, heart function, kidney function and diabetes, just to name a few. In blood bank, we test for blood types (A, B, AB and O) and match donor blood for patients that need a transfusion. In microbiology, we discover what types of bacteria are making you sick and what kinds of antibiotics that will kill the bacteria and make you better. Histology involves making an onion skin thickness cut of a piece of tissue that has been removed from a patient. This very small piece of tissue is placed on a slide, stained and a special doctor called a Pathologist looks at it. They decide if the cells found in the tissue are normal or abnormal.”
A career as a medical laboratory professional is ideal for someone who has an aptitude for the sciences and enjoys following a process to achieve results.
“Good personality traits would include being curious and wanting to explore to find answers. Being orderly, methodical, dedicated and honorable are good traits as well. Many techs are committed to supporting doctors and patients,” says Poliwczuk.
In addition to laboratory training, lab techs and assistants must also have good reading and writing comprehension, great oral communication, proficiency with numbers, advanced use of computerized technology and the ability to think on their feet.
There are colleges in almost every province that offer medical laboratory technologist and assistant training.
Poliwczuk received her education from Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). She says, “When I went to school, the program was two years. We spent the first year learning theory and practicing techniques in student labs. The second year was spent working in a hospital. We worked side by side with medical laboratory technologists putting our theory and practical training to use. The program is very demanding and as a student, you must be focused.”
After graduation, many provinces require lab techs to complete a certain number of professional development hours per year, a minimum number of practice hours annually and obtain certification with a regulatory body. Lab assistant certification is not mandatory in Canada, but many employers now require it as a standard of employment.
Like all professions, there are upsides and downsides to a career as a lab professional.
Poliwczuk shares, “I love that every day is different because every patient is different. I love the thought that the results I give the physician helps to diagnose what may wrong with the patient. I love the people I work with. We are a family all committed to helping people.
But she adds, “It is very hard to discover a patient has a Leukemia as the diagnosis means they have a long hard road ahead of them to be healthy again. This is especially hard when the patient is a child. We have regular patients that we see their blood every week. When one of these patients dies, we feel sad as they had become a part of us.”
“Salaries vary from province to province and also with union agreements. At Dynalife, entry level technologists can expect to make between $60,000 and $70,000 per year. Experienced techs can make between $80,000 and $85,000 per year,” says Poliwczuk.
Government of Canada data from the last census in 2016 states that the median salary for medical lab technologists was $61,491 while lab assistants earned a median salary of $42,306. Job growth in the profession was predicted in almost all areas of the country. Poliwczuk predicts a positive outlook for the profession. “I feel it is a great career,” she says. “There are many avenues to go down if you don’t stay a working technologist in the medical field. We have an aging population, many techs that are baby boomers are getting ready to retire, and maternity leaves are longer now. There is a great opportunity for employment now and in the future.”