April 23rd marks the beginning of this year’s National Lab Week. You’ve probably never heard of it. I had never heard of it until my husband told me, loudly, how his profession deserves to be recognized sometime when we first started dating. We offer so much love for the “unsung heroes” that are nurses. By golly, they absolutely deserve our praise and recognition. However, there are so many other medical professionals that don’t get the love and attention we publicly offer our nurses and doctors. I’m talking about radiology techs, pharmacists and pharmacy techs, EMTs, and of course Medical Laboratory Technologists, like my dear husband.
So what is a Medical Laboratory Technologist (MLT)? The American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP), their accrediting body, describes the profession as “laboratory personnel [who] examine and analyze body fluids, and cells. They look for bacteria, parasites, and other microorganisms; analyze the chemical contents of fluids; match blood for transfusions; and test for drug levels in the blood that show how a patient is responding to treatment.” I describe it as “Any bodily fluid they take from you? Yeah, they test that.”
Medical dramas often show doctors performing laboratory tests, if they show anyone running them at all. This almost never happens. The only doctor that would be doing any testing is a pathologist. A pathologist is “a physician with a MD or DO medical degree who leads the examination of the tissue and organ samples and coordinates or communicates with the primary care physician to ultimately determine a diagnosis, or in some cases, cause of death,” according to ASCP.
I mean, I get it. It’s not very exciting television to watch people prepare samples and look through microscopes. You will probably never talk to an MLT unless your nurse and/or phlebotomist is having a hard time drawing your blood and calls for backup. Honestly, limited patient contact is one of the reasons my husband picked his career. It’s all of the science with less of the people.
MLTs are invaluable to your medical care, though. “Can’t machines just do it?” Well, yes, machines do a lot of your testing. Without MLTs, though, there wouldn’t be anyone to set up the tests, run the tests, maintain the machines, and know when the machines aren’t giving an accurate result. There also wouldn’t be people with the knowledge necessary to perform tests when machines are down or provide valuable insight to the nurses and doctors administering care.
Just like nurses, doctors, and any other hospital professionals, MLTs work weekends, nights, and holidays to make sure you can receive treatment when you need it. They stay late when there is an emergency, or even urgency, because people don’t stop getting sick or dying when five o’clock rolls around.
Anytime you’ve been prescribed antibiotics for strep throat, you can thank an MLT for providing the test results to diagnose it. If you’ve ever received blood or blood products, you can thank an MLT for preparing it and properly matching it to your blood type. Anytime your doctor has ordered a test on your blood, urine, or any other bodily fluid, you can thank an MLT for providing her with the results necessary to properly diagnose—and therefore treat—you.
An entire profession you may not have known existed is a big reason why you can be provided with appropriate treatment for your ailments or the peace of mind that all is well. So while an MLT does not start your IV, comfort you while you’re in pain, or prescribe the medicine necessary to cure or treat you, they are heroes all the same.