If you have ever been to the doctor, chances are you have had tests run in order to check for diseases or abnormalities. The doctor orders the test, but who actually does the testing? It is the medical laboratory technician (two-year degree) and medical laboratory scientist (four-year degree).

The Medical Laboratory Technician/Scientist profession is often called the “hidden profession” because the job of a medical laboratory technician (MLT) is often done behind the scenes. Their work is essential and provides empirical and scientific data to assist the health care providers with crucial information for diagnosis, treatment and management of a patient’s health. Approximately 70% of physician-patient interactions are influenced by laboratory test data. Decisions are made based upon test results often these can be big decisions that wholly affect a patient’s general health outcome. It is no surprise that laboratory medicine and tests are so important to the health care team.

There is a critical shortage of medical laboratory technicians in the immediate area and across the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics (BLS 2020), the MLT positions are expected to grow by greater than 7% between 2019 and 2029. This growth is more than double the average increase in demand among other occupations in the United States.

During my senior year of high school, I was not sure what college degree to major in. I did know that I loved science, math and research. I also knew that I wanted to work in health care. My older brother told me about microbiology. Then, on my first day of college, my roommate told me that she was majoring in medical laboratory science. I had never heard of it, but it was a perfect fit for me.

So what does a MLT do? MLTs collect and prepare specimens for analysis, analyze blood and body fluids, test for drug levels, match blood compatibility for transfusion, analyze specimens for microorganism and determine antibiotic susceptibility when needed, operate automated and sophisticated laboratory equipment and computerized instruments capable of performing a number of tests at the same time, and perform quality control.

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Laboratory testing and course work encompasses clinical chemistry (biochemical analysis of blood and body fluids), hematology (diseases of the blood and bone marrow), immunology (study of the immune system), immunohematology (typing and cross-matching for compatibility of blood transfusions), microbiology (study of bacteria, fungus, and parasites), and urinalysis and biological fluids (testing of urine and other body fluids).

The Medical Laboratory Technician program at Minnesota West Community and Technical College is located at the Luverne Center. The program requires two years (three semesters at the college and six months of clinicals in a hospital laboratory). The MLT program began in 1994. Courses are taught by instructors who have years of experience, and some are also working in a hospital laboratory. Lectures are enhanced by hands-on laboratory testing in a state-of-art student laboratory.

Upon completion of the academic and clinical requirements, the student will be awarded an associate of applied science degree and will be eligible to take the national certification examination. Job placement in this area is currently at 100%. The student has an opportunity to further his/her degree while working as a MLT through several online bachelor of science degree programs. He/she may even advance and receive a master of science, or a doctorate of science in clinical laboratory science.

Although MLTs are geared to work in a hospital or clinical laboratory setting, there are also job opportunities in water analysis labs, reference laboratories, public health labs, pharmaceutical companies, fertility clinics and veterinarian laboratories.

Scholarships are available through Minnesota West Community & Technical College, laboratory professional societies such as American Society of Clinical Laboratory Science and other laboratory venues.

Dr. Rita Miller is the Medical Laboratory Technician Program Director/Instructor.