COVID-19 Unseen Heroes: Medical Laboratory Professionals
Physicians, nurses, clinical personnel everywhere are working together to fight the spread of COVID-19. Also on the front lines are medical laboratory professionals working diligently 24/7 to provide diagnostic answers to physicians, hospitals, and the community. Although not represented on the patient front line like nurses and doctors, laboratory medicine has always been essential to hospitals and communities; now more than ever is this a fact.
Who Are We?
Medical Technologists (MT) and Medical Laboratory Technicians (MLT) are highly skilled professionals who discover the presence of absence of disease and provide data that help physicians determine the best treatment for patients. We generate accurate laboratory data that are needed to aid in detecting cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, and identification of bacteria or viruses that cause infection, not to mention detecting drugs of abuse (1). By testing we also help determine the need for blood transfusion, as well as test the blood to be transfused to ensure compatibility with the patient.
The American Clinical Laboratory Association estimates that 70% of medical decisions are based on lab tests, resulting in a diagnostic testing market that was valued at $51.2 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach $62.9 billion by 2024.
What we do:
Laboratory tests are performed on varieties of human specimens including: blood, serum or plasma (which is result of centrifugation), throat swab, nasal swab, sputum, urine, feces, other body fluids such as cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), pleural fluid (lung), synovial fluid (knee), ascites (abdominal cavity), flesh wounds, DNA, eye, hair, skin, nails, vaginal, and seminal fluid. Yeah, often times it’s not a pretty sight! Sometimes we give ourselves a pep talk to do the unpleasant.
Phlebotomists only draw blood from patients and send the blood to the laboratory. Nurses can also draw blood, but they will usually collect other specimen samples from patients to send to the lab. Currently specimens collected for COVID-19 are usually collected by Respiratory Therapists and Registered Nurses. Body fluid cavity specimens are most often collected by physicians.
How Testing Works:
The clinical laboratory is like the systems of the human body, the systems with their own functions they work together to keep the body function as a whole. In lab testing is done according to discipline. These disciplines include: clinical chemistry, hematology, coagulation, urinalysis, microbiology, blood bank, toxicology, flow cytometry, and pathology. Many people work together to keep the lab functioning 24/7 including phlebotomists, lab assistants, customer service, MTs and MLTs, laboratory IT team, cytotechnologists, histotechnologists, pathologists, and pathologist assistants; not to mention leadership including supervisors, managers, and lab directors. The amount of staff and testing methods will vary depending on the size of the facility.
Medical lab techs have to be able to explain how samples are tested, the methodology used for testing and why results are acceptable or unacceptable for a given specimen. We interpret lab values. Upon approving lab results the technologist must interpret and compare values that are within normal clinical ranges, values that are abnormal, and critical values. If the latter two are the case we must investigate and rule out interference that can cause erroneous results such as clots, contamination, or analyzer malfunction. When encountering critical lab values and positive screens, i.e. COVID-19, the technologist calls and reports the result to either a registered nurse or physician. Precautions are then set for the patient and eventually the public is made known.
We Make a Difference
Medical laboratory technicians (MLTs) typically have an associate’s degree in medical laboratory technology whereas medical laboratory technologists (medical laboratory scientists) typically have a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science or another science major with approved clinical laboratory internship. In most cases they do the same work, the pay is appropriated by degree and experience. Education and training are rigorous. We must also be board certified. Most hospitals require certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology. We can work in clinical, forensic, academic, and reference laboratories.
Laboratory science is a critical healthcare field that impacts the health of every person. In my experience as a lab tech our value is often underestimated by hospital administration. Such is not the case now with the COVID-19 pandemic. The public can now see why our field has an on-going crucial need for highly skilled professionals who provide the answers in times such as now.
Jalisa Foulds, MLS (ASCP)cm