Medical laboratory assistants (MLAs) work under the direction of lab technicians and technologists, who typically have more training and education. An MLA might take on some of the tasks that these technicians aren't able to perform simply because their efforts are needed elsewhere. Much of an MLA's responsibilities may be administrative in nature. However, when permitted by state law and their employer, their duties may include more advanced clinical tasks according to American Medical Technologists (AMT), a certification agency for allied health professionals (americanmedtech.org, 2013).
Specific tasks might include setting up equipment for tests, checking for broken equipment, finding replacement parts or making sure that new equipment is ordered. MLAs may also be responsible for recording blood samples and placing them in appropriate storage locations or preparing blood samples and other specimens for analysis by lab technicians. Like medical lab techs, MLAs can be found in diagnostic laboratories, hospitals, physicians' offices and similar healthcare settings. Injury risks may include being exposed to contagious specimens, but these can be greatly minimized by wearing proper safety equipment and following protocol.
How to Become a Medical Lab Assistant
According to AMT, many MLAs learn their skills on the job. However, those interested in medical lab assisting training may benefit from attending formal postsecondary programs. The following steps may be helpful in pursuing medical lab assisting careers:
- Obtain a high school diploma or GED with an emphasis on taking science courses.
- Look for medical lab assisting programs at postsecondary institutions such as community colleges or vocational schools. These programs can typically lead to a diploma or certificate and can help students learn professional lab skills and basic medical science principles.
- Pursue professional certification opportunities. It's often not required, but employers may prefer to hire medical lab assistants who have obtained certification, according to AMT.
- Research state licensure requirements and take the steps to become licensed if necessary.
- Apply for entry-level medical lab assisting jobs.
- Renew professional certification as needed.
While these steps can be recommended, following them does not guarantee employment.
Post-Education Requirements: Certifications and/or State Licensure
As noted above, certification may not be necessary, but it can be a good way for individuals to show their skills have been verified by a recognized industry association. Medical lab assistants can turn to at least two different national certification agencies to become certified:
- American Medical Technologists (AMT): Students can seek their MLA certification through this agency by choosing to take either a paper-and-pencil or computerized multiple-choice test. Applicants must receive at least a 70 percent on the test to become certified.
- The National Healthcare Workers Association (NHWA): Students can become certified by taking either a handwritten or computerized exam at one of NHWA's national testing sites. If applicants don't pass, they are eligible to take the exam again after 30 days.
Certifications awarded by these and other agencies generally need to be renewed periodically. Recertification may involve earning continuing education credits, paying a fee and completing other requirements.
Medical Lab Assistant Job Growth and Average Salary
The BLS does not provide career growth or salary data for medical lab assistants specifically. However, it does expect an increased need for lab techs in the U.S. as more help is needed in identifying specific types of disease afflicting older patients, such as cancer, through laboratory tests. Indeed, the BLS reports that employment of medical and clinical laboratory technicians is expected to grow by 15 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020, nearly as fast as the rate for all occupations. The BLS also projects employment of medical and clinical laboratory technologists will grow by 11 percent nationally during this span (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).
The median national annual wage for medical and clinical laboratory technicians was $37,240 in May 2012, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $57,710 and the lowest 10 percent earning less than $24,790. Medical and clinical laboratory technologists earned a median national annual wage of $57,580 in May 2012, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $78,900 and the lowest 10 percent earning less than $39,580 (bls.gov/oes, 2103). Expect salary figures and job growth to be different for medical lab assistant careers.
List of Related Careers
A variety of similar occupations may be of interest to those considering medical lab assistant careers. The following careers typically require some understanding of clinical work in a lab setting:
- Biological Technicians: Help scientists, including biologists, with research and testing in the lab and perform related duties as needed.
- Chemical Technicians: Aid chemical engineers and scientists in developing and researching products or specific processes.
- Medical Lab Technicians and Technologists: Perform a variety of medical lab tests and procedures. This may include drawing blood, collecting urine specimens, or preparing tissue samples. May also oversee the work of medical lab assistants.
- Veterinary Technicians and Technologists: Assist veterinarians in working with animals, including helping with tests, aiding in diagnoses, or aiding with treatment.
Additional education, certification and/or licensure are often needed to pursue these and other job opportunities.
Links to Sources and Associations
The following websites may provide more information about the medical lab assisting occupations: