What Are Medical Lab Assistants?
Employees who work in a medical lab performing basic tasks, like preparing equipment and helping analyze test results, are often known as medical lab assistants (MLAs). In some cases, the work of an MLA might be more administrative in scope, the American Medical Technologists (AMT) points out. However, in other employment situations, MLAs may be allowed to process specimens, such as blood and urine samples, and even take blood, when such tasks are permitted by state law and by an employer. For more information, see our page on medical lab assistant careers.
Medical Lab Assisting Program Information
Some MLAs might be able to find employment without previous training, instead learning on the job. However, some employers may prefer to hire workers who have gone through formal MLA training and can come on board already possessing the perquisite skills and knowledge.
Medical lab assisting programs are commonly found at vocational-technical schools, career colleges and community colleges. Most programs are campus-based, but some schools may offer lecture-based classes online. Onsite clinical labs make up a significant portion of these programs, giving students the chance to practice collecting samples, processing specimens and analyzing test results -- a clinical externship may be included as part of the credit requirements. In the classroom, students can expect to learn about human anatomy and physiology, computer applications, English composition, medical terminology, and biology.
Medical Lab Assisting Program Types
Students in medical lab assisting schools can work toward completing one of the following types of programs:
- Diploma: Programs in medical lab assisting that lead to a diploma may take anywhere from six months up to a year to complete. In these programs, students should learn how to aid lab technicians and technologists in the laboratory, how to work with other staff members and patients, and how to process samples and fluids in the lab while carrying out safety precautions.
- Certificate: Students in medical lab assisting schools that offer a certificate usually need to invest a year's worth or more of time to complete their studies. As part of the program, students should learn about the basic and more advanced skills needed to help assist technicians and technologists in a laboratory. They should learn about all phases of processing samples in a laboratory and about the hazards that can be presented.
Certificate and diploma programs can act as a good foundation for future medical lab science studies at the associate or bachelor's levels. They can also help prepare students for professional certification and state licensure/registration. National certification is offered through organizations such as the American Medical Technologists group and National Healthcare Workers Association (NHWA) as a way to validate an MLA's skills.
Medical Lab Assisting Course Descriptions
While courses vary between programs, the following medical lab assisting courses are examples of common courses in an MLA curriculum.
- Medical Terminology: Students can learn about the basic language used in healthcare and medicine. They should learn the essential terms relating to anatomy, diagnostic procedures, pathology, surgery and so on.
- Clinical Phlebotomy: Students learn what veins to look for when taking blood, what types of tests they may need to take blood for, how to use different color-coded tubes and how to safely take samples to prohibit contamination or spread of infection.
- Laboratory Specimen Processing: Students typically learn the various steps of processing specimens through a lab. This class should help them learn how to track specimens in a computer as well as to label, handle, and store them.
- Professional Practice and Safety in Healthcare: Students learn about the importance of maintaining a professional attitude when interacting with patients and colleagues. They should be able to identify hazardous materials that can be found on the job and know what safety procedures and accident reporting to follow.
Related Career Options
A certificate or diploma through one of the medical lab assisting programs could help prepare students to pursue a number of related options. These career paths could include work as a:
- Phlebotomist: These workers can draw blood for lab analysis, donation or research. Because MLAs often learn about this as part of their coursework, they may be well-suited for a full-time career as a phlebotomist. May require additional experience/education.
- Medical Lab Technician/Technologist: With more training, MLAs could take the steps to be able to analyze blood samples and other specimens in a laboratory.
- Cardiovascular Technician/Technologist: Because some MLAs receive EKG/ECG training as part of their coursework, they could be prepared through further training and education to help do imaging and healthcare tasks in a physician's office in the future.
Links to Sources and Associations
Visit the following websites to discover more about medical lab assisting:
Medical Lab Assistant, American Medical Technologists, http://www.americanmedtech.org/Certification/MedicalLabAssistant.aspx
Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians, Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-and-clinical-laboratory-technologists-and-technicians.htm
National Healthcare Workers Association, http://nationalhealthcareworkersassociation.com/