What Is a Medical Laboratory Scientist?

What Is a Medical Laboratory Scientist?

One way to think of a medical laboratory scientist (MLS) is as a highly skilled “disease detective” whose medical diagnostic testing skills play an incredibly important role in the world of healthcare.

Medical laboratory scientists are typically responsible for conducting a variety of tests on patient samples (blood, various body fluids, cells, tissues, etc.) to detect the presence or absence of health conditions. Their work is considered essential to the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of disease.

Several other important things to know about the medical laboratory science (MLS) profession:

  • There is a serious shortage of medical laboratory scientists, also called clinical laboratory scientists.
  • The field of medical laboratory science offers a variety of interesting career opportunities.
  • Working as an MLS offers an opportunity to have a positive impact on people’s health.

MLS Job Responsibilities

Using cutting-edge biomedical instrumentation and technology, medical laboratory professionals play a pivotal role in a range of laboratory settings, performing job duties that can include:

  • Examining and analyzing body fluids, tissues and cells
  • Identifying potentially harmful microorganisms
  • Analyzing the chemical makeup of body fluids
  • Testing blood for drug levels to measure the efficacy of particular treatments
  • Evaluating test results for accuracy
  • Helping interpret test results for physicians
  • Operating, maintaining and repairing clinical instruments
  • Using complex computer systems for data entry, retrieval and analysis
  • Ensuring quality control throughout the lab
  • Supervising inventory
  • Teaching proper laboratory practices to students and healthcare personnel

According to the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASLCS):

  • Medical laboratory scientists use sophisticated biomedical instrumentation and technology, computers and methods requiring manual dexterity to perform laboratory testing on blood and body fluids.
  • Laboratory testing encompasses such disciplines as clinical chemistry, hematology, immunology, immunohematology, microbiology and molecular biology.
  • MLS professionals generate accurate laboratory data needed to aid in detecting cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, infectious mononucleosis and identification of bacteria or viruses that cause infections, as well as in detecting drugs of abuse.
  • Medical lab scientists also monitor testing quality and consult with other members of the healthcare team.

In the medical laboratory setting, MLS professionals perform skilled testing and diagnostics that are vital to patient diagnosis and treatment, as well as disease management and intervention. In a wider sense, medical laboratory scientist professionals also provide helpful analyses in a variety of roles, including forensics, pharmaceuticals or product research and development.

Career Opportunities

Conducting tests within a medical laboratory setting is perhaps the best-known role for medical laboratory scientists, but the field is not limited just to medical testing. A medical laboratory science degree positions graduates for a wide range of opportunities in laboratory science, including:

  • Medical laboratory management
  • Clinical supervisor
  • Research and development
  • Pharmaceutical representative
  • Forensics
  • Technical specialist
  • Education and instruction
  • Laboratory information specialist

Exciting career opportunities abound in hospital laboratories, clinics, forensic laboratories, veterinary clinics, industrial research labs, biotech companies and beyond.

Career Specialties

Areas of specialty within the field of medical laboratory science include:

  • Hematology: the study of blood, blood-producing organs and blood disorders
  • Bacteriology: the medical study of bacteria
  • Chemistry: analysis of the chemical constituents of body fluids
  • Clinical pathology: the study of how bodily fluids relate to disease
  • Immunohematology: the study of antigens and antibodies, particularly as relates to blood transfusions
  • Immunology/Serology: the study and analysis of immune responses to disease
  • Microbiology: the identification and evaluation of bacteria and viruses and their properties in relation to disease
  • Urinalysis: the examination of urine to detect and manage health disorders, etc.

The ASCLS Career Center lists hundreds of job openings, searchable by job title and location. Recently, featured jobs included Director of Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory, Medical Director, among many others.

A recent search for “medical laboratory science” jobs on LinkedIn.com revealed more than 3,700 results, from medical and clinical laboratory scientist jobs in a variety of industries and locations across the country to laboratory specialist jobs with state and federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Defense. Listings span all levels of responsibility (such as director-level positions) and include jobs in biotech, sales, marketing, research, college and university faculty, laboratory operations and management, and more.

Salary Outlook

The ongoing shortage of medical laboratory science professionals means that earning your bachelor’s degree in this in-demand field can be a smart investment in your future. According to the American Society for Clinical Pathology, medical laboratory scientists typically earn between $60,000 and $102,000 annually, depending on responsibilities and level of experience. Projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate job growth of 11%, which the BLS characterizes as “much faster than average.”

At least two key factors are driving the shortage of qualified medical laboratory scientists. “Clinical laboratories are feeling the impact of the aging workforce, as experienced professionals who had delayed retirement due to economic uncertainties are now retiring, or planning to retire in the next five years, in greater numbers,” according to the ASCLS. In addition, “the demand for laboratory services is increasing due to population growth, an increase in the population aged 65 or older” and an ever-expanding array of tests.

Academic Requirements

To become a medical lab scientist, you will need to earn your bachelor’s degree from an academic institution that is accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS).

While a more general degree may make the most sense for those who are uncertain about their career goals, aspiring medical laboratory scientists are best served by gaining the specific knowledge, skills and experience available through a Bachelor of Science in Medical Laboratory Science degree program.

Such programs are ideal for the many lab professionals whose career path involves entering the field as a medical laboratory technician (MLT) before advancing their career by becoming an MLS.

Additionally, many medical laboratory scientists began their professional training during their time in the military. Active duty or veteran personnel may have completed their Health Science Laboratory Technology (HSLT) program through military affiliation, and are often accepted into NAACLS-accredited programs.

As colleges and universities continue to train the next generation of lab professionals, the shortage of medical laboratory scientists looms as both a problem for lab employers and an opportunity for qualified workers.

“Although U.S. institutions are becoming more efficient in training medical laboratory scientists and technicians, the enrollment and graduation of medical laboratory professionals is not keeping up with the rapidly rising demand,” according to the ASCLS.

How to Become a Medical Laboratory Scientist

The field of medical laboratory science is “critically important in patient care,” according to Kim Collison, director of laboratory services at Spectrum Advanced Technology Laboratory in Grand Rapids, Mich., “because the laboratory is the area that helps with the diagnosis, treatment options and patient outcomes — and without laboratory data there are a lot of questions that would go unanswered.” Speaking in a medical laboratory science careers video, Collison noted that the field offers multiple options and outstanding career possibilities.

Due to the significant worker shortage, recruitment is ongoing throughout the medical laboratory science industry field and job security is strong. “Do you love science? Does the human body fascinate you?” These are questions asked of prospective medical laboratory scientists in an ASCLS recruitment video in which medical lab scientists talk about why they love their career. Bottom line: “We have fun, we love what we’re doing and we help people,” says David Keren, medical director of clinical pathology at the University of Michigan.

With the high demand for qualified medical lab scientists, there has never been a better time to earn your degree. The University of Cincinnati offers a 100% online, NAACLS-accredited bachelor’s degree in Medical Laboratory Science. This program is specifically designed for working technicians in the field. So, you will be equipped to offer higher levels of care to patient populations, open the door to new career opportunities and achieve a better quality of life for you and your family.

To learn more about how to become a medical laboratory scientist, read our comprehensive 4-step guide. And if you have questions about earning your MLS degree, reach out to an Enrollment Services Advisor today.

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