If you’ve ever visited a hospital as a patient or even just attended an appointment at your family doctor’s office, you’ve almost certainly benefited from the expertise of a clinical lab scientist. Although not seen by the vast majority of people who visit a health care facility, the clinical laboratory science department is responsible for providing upwards of 70% of the diagnostic results that doctors require when treating their patients.
We spoke with Dr. Tammy Carter, director of the Bachelor of Science in Clinical Laboratory Science program at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, School of Health Professions (TTUHSC-SHP) to learn exactly what clinical laboratory science is all about, and the opportunities in the field for graduates of the Clinical Laboratory Science program.
What is Clinical Laboratory Science?
“A clinical lab scientist is a scientist in the hospital who performs tests and does all the experiments on those samples a doctor or nurse takes when a patient gives a urine sample, has blood drawn, or their throat swabbed,” says Carter. “We are the ones who give the results to the doctor and pretty much narrow down what is wrong with the patient.”
Although the medical laboratory scientist’s work is performed behind the scenes, it provides a vital service to front-line health professionals.
“We are kind of hidden,” says Carter. “We do wear white jackets but nobody sees us. Patients see the nurses, they see their physical therapists, they see their doctors, their physicians' assistants, but they don't see us scientists behind the scenes. But we really do provide a lot of the vital information that the doctor needs to be able to diagnose and treat that patient.”
The spectrum of services a clinical lab scientist provides to their medical colleagues is both diverse and critical.
“To give you a broad range of it, we do all the chemistries, we do the liver panels, we also test the enzymes, electrolytes, and perform glucose testing,” says Carter. “We do immunology testing, so we test for antigen-antibody reactions. We also do the hematology which is looking at all the blood cells — the red and white blood cells and the differentiation between them — looking to see if they are normal or abnormal. We also do platelet functions for bleeding disorders, urine analysis, and body fluids. We test for kidney functions, looking for issues in the urine to see if we see casts or cells or things that aren't supposed to be there. We test body fluids like pleural fluid, synovial fluids and cerebrospinal fluid, and we also perform sperm counts.”
The clinical lab scientist is also responsible for the hospital’s blood bank. “We are the only people in the hospital who help ensure the compatibility of blood products for patients,” says Carter.
This isn’t just a simple case of checking that a patient is receiving the correct blood type.
“Before we can give a blood product for a platelet transplant or a blood transfusion, we have to make sure that we are giving out the correct product,” says Carter. “We also test for type and donor/recipient compatibility, checking for any kind of antigen-antibody immune response that could possibly cause an adverse reaction on the operating table with deadly consequences.”
New Advances in Medical Technology
As medical technology advances, clinical laboratory science becomes even more sophisticated.
“With the changes in technology, we are getting more involved in the field of molecular diagnostics,” says Carter. “So we can compare human DNA to viral or bacterial DNA to identify infectious agents, including STDs like gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV, and syphilis.”
Molecular science also enables clinical lab scientists to monitor drug treatment to help doctors manage conditions.
“If somebody does have HIV we can test to see if the viral load is going up or down from each visit to see if the treatment is actually working,” says Carter. “If the viral load is going up, the doctor can change that prescription to help the patient.”
As clinical laboratory science technologies and techniques improve, the speed at which a clinical lab scientist can deliver actionable results is also dramatically improved.
“With molecular diagnostics coming in, it is a faster turnaround time,” says Carter. “In some cases, they can give us the sample, we can test it, and we can have a result in two to three hours and then the doctor knows for sure whether he is giving a correct antibiotic prescription.”
The pace of change in clinical laboratory science is a guaranteed constant. This means that professors in clinical lab science programs have to maintain their practical experience in the field to ensure their academic programs remain up-to-date and relevant. This is routinely ensured by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS) which is the agency responsible for the accreditation and approval of education programs in the clinical laboratory sciences and related health care professions.
“Technology changes about every two years and everything you are using now will be obsolete in five to ten years,” says Carter. “So you have to stay up on it. As professors we are required to do service in the field, so as well as teaching, we also work at a clinical lab every week.”
The Clinical Laboratory Science Degree Program
The Bachelor of Science in Clinical Laboratory Science degree program at Texas Tech can open the door to a rewarding career as a medical laboratory scientist. It can also act as a springboard to prepare you if you plan to continue with your studies and become a doctor or physician assistant. As such, the program is divided into three tracks:
- Standard Option: Preparing students for a career primarily in a clinical setting such as a hospital, physician's office, laboratory, or a reference laboratory.
- Pre-med Option: For students interested in pursuing a graduate medical education through medical school, osteopathic school, veterinary school, or research graduate programs.
- Pre-Physician Assistant Option: For students pursuing a graduate education in physician assistant studies.
While each track has its own unique focus, Carter points out that the priority of all three tracks is to prepare you to pass the American Society of Clinical Pathologists (ASCP) clinical laboratory specialist certification exam which qualifies you to work as a medical laboratory scientist.
“My goal is to get you through this program successfully and to get you certified because you never know what is going to happen in life,” says Carter. “That certification, even if it is your ‘Plan B,’ is something that can get you a job and you need that first.”
If your career aspirations include medical education, Carter believes a degree in clinical laboratory science will not only create opportunities for you to enter the medical field, but it will also make you a better doctor when you do.
“We teach our students clinical correlation which looks at all the results of the tests we perform and actually diagnosing from them,” says Carter. “They are getting some really good background knowledge in reading patient results and diagnosing at the same time. If students do want to use it as a stepping stone towards a career in medicine, I would think they will be a better doctor for it.”
As a 2+2 degree program, you would typically join the program after completing your prerequisite coursework and Texas Core Curriculum (required by every student receiving a bachelor’s degree from a public institution of education in the state of Texas) during your freshman and sophomore years.
You can also join the program and study for a second degree after completing a bachelor’s degree in biology or chemistry. You also have the option to complete the Clinical Laboratory Science degree via an accelerated online program, but many students prefer the face-to-face experience of the classroom and extended periods of work in the lab.
A Hands-on Degree Program
Classes in the Clinical Laboratory Science program follow the nomenclature of the various departments in a hospital lab — clinical chemistry, hematology, bacteriology, etc. There is also a real emphasis on learning on-the-job skills, so you’ll spend a lot of time on practical work in the lab.
That practical experience starts immediately on day one of the program.
“We teach our students how to hold and use a pipette, how to streak the plates, and how to set things up,” says Carter. “We teach you all that the first day and then you’ll start practicing it and you will use these skills every day. You will know how to do all the basics before you leave here.”
The practical nature of the program will also help you master some of the more physical aspects of being a clinical lab scientist.
“As well as being academically sound, you need to be able to multitask,” says Carter. “There are a lot of times when you are working in a lab, especially if it’s a small lab, and you are doing everything. You are the phlebotomist, you're the med-tech and the lab manager, so you have to do the maintenance on the machines. A lot of time the instrumentation requires reagents be replaced and we have to be able to get them on to the machine and hook everything up, all while answering the phone or checking other laboratory results.”
According to Carter, physically being able to bend down and pick things up is just a small part of the “essential functions” a medical laboratory scientist needs to be able to do their job.
“In the lab, we are required to use microscopes and be able to see colors,” says Carter. “I do have people who are color blind and go through the program but they have to be good enough with their shades to be able to differentiate things. If somebody is blind, obviously they cannot look in a microscope, so they wouldn’t be able to do that task.”
Three Month Preceptorship Rotation Program
The practical element of the TTUHSC-SHP program is reinforced during the compulsory preceptorship rotation program during which you complete three months working under clinical supervision before taking the ASCP clinical laboratory specialist certification exam.
The rotation is also a chance for students to prove themselves in front of a potential employer.
“The rotation is a very good opportunity and I let the students know that before they leave the class,” says Carter. “While they are doing their preceptorship rotations, that hospital is training them in their labs to do their techniques and their skills and get used to their area. By the time they get close to the end of the three months, if they are a good tech and they are fitting in, pretty much all of them get a job offer.”
According to Carter, the career opportunities for certified medical laboratory scientists are exceptional, with upwards of 96% of certified graduates finding employment in the field within one year of graduation.
“Pretty much 100% of them get a job offer,” says Carter. “Not all of them take the offer, but 96% of them are getting employed and they often report back to me that they have a job immediately after graduating. We just had a call yesterday, where a student got hired in the blood bank department that he's rotating in right now — and he's still got a month of his three-month rotation to go."
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 13% projected job growth in the field is nearly twice the national average, with some 42,700 new positions expected to be created in the decade up to 2026. The salary outlook is also good with the national median salary for medical laboratory technologists and medical laboratory technicians currently standing at $52,330 per year, according to the BLS. Clinical laboratory scientist jobs are found in a variety of health care environments, including hospitals, outpatient care clinics, medical and diagnostic labs, and physician offices.
Due to the high demand for certified medical laboratory scientists across the United States, many hospitals, particularly in rural areas where the skills shortage is particularly acute, will offer considerable incentives to graduates to recruit and retain staff in various health professions. These incentives include higher rates of pay and, according to Carter, some smaller, rural clinics will even offer to pay off a student’s educational loans if they are the right candidate.
“Everybody wants to live in the big cities,” says Carter. “A lot of the smaller hospitals in rural areas, are starting to shut down and people in rural areas are having to drive several hours to get to a bigger city where there is a hospital or a clinic. Doctors often get offered a large financial incentive to work in these areas for a couple of years. They are doing the same for med techs because obviously some of the things that the doctor needs are immediate. You cannot always just send everything out to a lab and wait two days to a week or more for a result to be able to treat a patient, so they do need to have a good lab on site.”
Why the TTUHSC School of Health Professions?
As a graduate of the Bachelor of Science in Clinical Laboratory Science from the TTUHSC School of Health Professions herself, Carter understands what attracts students to the program and the university.
“We are a big school with a small-town attitude," says Carter. "We are still very rural in our attitudes and have more of a hands-on type of personality than other universities. We do keep our classes small, and students have personal contact with their professors. Students can walk in to see us anytime they want to because we are their personal academic advisors.”
Carter believes the real sense of community among students, professors, and other faculty members is a particularly attractive aspect of life at TTUHSC-SHP.
“I think that's one thing that the students really like,” says Carter. “You definitely know us after you complete the program.”
This relationship often continues long after students have graduated.
“When my students graduate I tell them that I stalk them,” laughs Carter. “I want to know where they are working and I want to know how they are doing. If they do poorly on the certification exam the first time, I will contact them and let them know exactly what sections they did poorly in and what they need to study and try to tutor them towards their next exam. I don't let them go. We are a nice tight-knit community.”
Beginning Your Journey To Become a Clinical Lab Scientist
If you want to learn more about the Bachelor of Science in Clinical Laboratory Science program, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, call us at 806-743-3220, or visit the program page on our website.