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Medical Lab Scientists: The ‘Hidden Profession’ That Saves Lives

The identification, diagnosis and treatment of disease require a skilled detective, someone who knows what clues to look for and can communicate their findings to provide insight on the best course of action. Medical lab scientists exist as the detectives of the healthcare field. With a broad base of expertise — chemistry, hematology, microbiology and more — they are often the first people to spot cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening conditions.  

Medical lab scientists are among the most integral parts of healthcare teams. They analyze biological specimens — from cells to blood and other bodily fluids — and their analysis can help guide doctors’ decisions. Experts estimate that medical lab science professionals provide up to 70% of patients’ laboratory testing to physicians to make accurate diagnoses and treatment plans. 

Despite occupying such an important part of the diagnostic and treatment process, lab professionals are considered to be among the most unrecognized healthcare workers — a hidden profession. Though they may not engage in face-to-face communication with patients like other healthcare professionals, medical lab scientists are vital, and they continue to be highly sought after in the field. 

What Is Medical Laboratory Science?

Lab science professionals work very closely with physicians and are at the frontlines of testing and analyzing samples from patients. The amount of information that can be gleaned from these lab results span from early disease detection and prevention to providing insight on how to treat cancers, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions. 

Medical lab scientists touch almost every aspect of healthcare, but the general public is largely not familiar with the work they do. This unfamiliarity has led to misconceptions about the role, including about the specifics of what medical lab scientists do on a day-to-day basis. It’s something that Katie Cavnar, Chair and Program Director of Medical Lab Sciences at the University of West Florida, has experienced throughout her career. 

“I’ve had to explain this many times — even to my own family. They either think I draw blood and that’s it, or that I’m a doctor. Medical laboratory scientists are the ones who take the samples and run the tests,” she said. “Very often we’re the first ones to know if someone is pregnant or if someone has diabetes. We’re the ones who do all that diagnostic testing for the physicians.”

In addition to this lack of understanding of medical lab scientists’ roles, the public is unfamiliar with their importance. Because patients often don’t see medical lab scientists, it can make it difficult for them to understand the crucial work they do. Plus, pop culture has created an unrealistic sense of how the healthcare field operates.

“It’s a nebulous place where tubes go with your blood and come back with results. So they never see us. We’re faceless,” Cavnar said. “I also blame TV — patients watch these shows like ‘CSI’  or ‘House’ and on those shows, they have physicians doing the testing, which never happens.”

Given the importance of the work conducted by lab professionals, it’s crucial that the public have a greater awareness of the role they play in healthcare. Cavnar says this is a challenge because the nature of the job tends to draw people who are more interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of medicine and the intricacies of lab science. 

“It’s just all about the legislature and trying to get the word out there more,” she said. “We have a hard time even at the university — we’re still working on recruiting.”

Organizations have been working for decades to raise the profile of medical lab scientists. Medical Laboratory Professionals Week (MLPW), which is observed in the last full week in April, was originated by the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS) in 1975. Today, its focus is to not only celebrate the important work lab scientists do but to provide an opportunity for greater visibility and understanding among the public. The ASCLS is also at the forefront of lobbying lawmakers to ensure they are supporting cost-effective, high-quality clinical laboratory services.

A Rewarding Career With a Huge Impact on Patients’ Lives

Although medical lab science professionals may not have the patient-facing roles that doctors and nurses do, their work is not any less rewarding or impactful. They play a vital role in early disease detection and prevention and can be integral in treating certain trauma cases as well. This is particularly true in the case of medical lab scientists who work in blood banks, which is where Cavnar spent part of her career. 

“My very first day in the blood bank, we had a GI bleed and the patient, by the end of the day, used over 100 blood products — and he survived. And that was amazing,” she said. “We don’t generally get a lot of recognition, but I remember the doctors bought us a really nice box of chocolates and we were thrilled — but we were mostly thrilled that he lived.”

The role that medical lab scientists play in healthcare extends to how doctors read and interpret data. Specifically, by providing doctors with detailed analysis of test results, scientists can lay the groundwork for decisions regarding courses of treatment, diagnoses and cross-matching blood transfusions. These interactions can have a significant impact on the everyday lives of patients. For example, the testing conducted by scientists can be used to help diabetes patients see how they’re managing their condition and what courses of treatment have been effective. It also impacts general health and lifestyle decisions patients might make after their annual physical.

The fight against COVID-19 proved how instrumental medical lab scientists are. Early on, they were on the frontlines ensuring that testing was done quickly and accurately. This critical diagnostic role shone a light on lab scientists and how they work to save lives. In this case, by identifying positive cases, lab scientists helped doctors begin treatment quickly, start effective contact tracing and take the first step in reducing the spread.

Medical lab scientists are also at the forefront of early diagnoses. By identifying cancer and other diseases early, lab scientists provide patients with more time to begin treatment, make lifestyle changes and more effectively and proactively combat their illnesses.

“They want to be able to catch anything early, like if someone was showing a shift toward leukemia,” Cavnar said. “Yearly appointments with your physician are really important. You get your cholesterol checked, you get your lipids, you get your liver panel. Even a small bump in numbers can sometimes be indicative of ‘maybe I should change the way I’m eating or drinking or exercising.’” 

Those with an MLS degree can work in a variety of roles. Although some may choose to work primarily in the lab setting, they can also use their MLS degree on the path to administrative roles and, depending on the area of focus, have the opportunity to work in many areas of healthcare and medicine including microbiology, hematology, epidemiology and cancer research.

“I’ve had students work at biotech companies or forensics, and it can set you up to go even further in the field,” Cavnar said. She also points out that scientists who have an MLS degree often go on to pursue a master’s in public health and other advanced degrees.

Technology Shaping the Future of Healthcare

Like any scientific practice, lab science is an ever-evolving field. A popular career track among MLS professionals is working to research, develop and manufacture advancements in the latest instruments. Recent advancements in the field include the development of more sophisticated instruments that can diagnose diseases in a much more timely fashion. 

For example, if someone had an infection and doctors wanted to know whether it was resistant to certain drugs or treatments, it used to take days, or even a week, to figure out. Now, thanks to advancements in instrumentation it can be done in 24 hours. The same is true for recent changes to the way tuberculosis is diagnosed. Previously it took weeks for organisms to grow to identify the disease, but now it can be done at a molecular level. Other recent advancements include:

  • Machine learning. Uses of machine learning include the quality review of lab results and disease or outcome prediction.
  • 3D printing. The expanded use of 3D printing has led to the development of custom 3D-printed equipment.
  • Expanded genome screening. A greater understanding of patients’ genetic makeup offers greater insight into diagnoses and treatment.

One of the characteristics that make lab professionals successful is how they want to understand everything there is to know about the newest technology, according to Cavnar.

“One of the things that’s a good trait in medical laboratory scientists is they embrace that advancement, and they want to understand those instruments and the technology — it just makes our lives easier,” she said. 

Shape Patient Outcomes With an MLS Degree

There are different paths one can take to a medical lab science degree, but Cavnar says she took one of the most common ones. She was a biology major who was not interested in pursuing medical school or becoming a doctor. She says that in her work at UWF, she tends to see a lot of biology students who are unsure how they want to put their degree to work. Making the decision to pursue a career in medical lab science is a good choice; she says her department has close to a 100% job placement rate. 

“We cannot graduate enough students to satisfy even local hospitals,” she said. “I get emails daily begging us for our graduates.”

The numbers back up Cavnar’s experience. According to the American Society for Microbiology, employment in healthcare is expected to grow by 19% from 2014 to 2024 — which accounts for about 2.3 million new jobs.

Making the jump from a medical lab technician to a medical lab scientist is also a popular career track. In addition to being more intimately involved with analysis and diagnoses, there can be quite a big difference between pay and advancement opportunities between an MLT and an MLS. 

“It’s hard to pin down an exact number, but the difference in salary between MLT and MLS is at least $10,000 a year,” Cavnar said. “If you want to work as a lab manager or lab supervisor, a bachelor’s degree is something that will help you with that.”

Successful lab scientists possess a broad range of characteristics. They need to have an innate curiosity, a strong desire to help people, a zeal for solving problems and the ability to stay cool under pressure. They also need to be incredibly organized and detail-oriented, Cavnar says.

“It’s meticulousness. It’s paying attention to details,” she said. “You want to be able to catch things on patients.” She added that scientists have to be able to roll with the punches and handle the unexpected, especially scientists who work in high-pressure fields like blood banking.

The University of West Florida’s online Medical Lab Technician to Medical Lab Scientist (MLT to MLS) bachelor’s degree program is ideal for meticulous lab professionals who are looking to take the next step in their careers. With a self-paced, fully online format, students can complete their degrees around their schedules. 

The rigorous curriculum is taught by faculty that are highly experienced in the field and touches on the full range of lab tests ranging from blood bank, hematology and molecular diagnostics to clinical chemistry, diagnostic microbiology and clinical immunology. 

Learn more about the University of West Florida’s NAACLS-accredited online MLT to MLS bachelor’s program.

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