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The amazing medical advances made in the last fifty years have come about because scientists have been willing to work long hours in labs, learning, puzzling, and experimenting. Medical technology has played a large role in these advances. Medical technicians and technologists run tests that detect disease. The results they find help in its diagnosis. Their findings also lead doctors to decide the course of treatment for their patients.

Almost everyone has had at least one medical test, usually a blood test or a drug test. Medical technicians perform these routine lab tests under the supervision of medical personnel. In this field, there is a clear distinction between a technologist and a technician. Medical technologists, with their more extensive training, have more authority to make decisions. Medical technicians are encouraged to follow instructions to the letter and leave decision making to others. They usually work under the supervision of technologists, but sometimes they work for medical doctors.

Medical tests are run on blood, urine, tissue, spinal fluid, cells of various kinds, and whatever else a doctor calls for. Today, much lab equipment is automated and technicians can run several tests at the same time, for blood sugars or hormone levels, for instance. Early detection of disease through such tests has been responsible for lengthening the lifespan of many Americans. The best example of a life-saving test is the PSA test which measures prostate-specific antigen and can catch prostate cancer in its earliest and most treatable stages.

Technologists examine blood and tissue samples under microscopes. Technicians, too, can learn to do tissue (histology) cultures to see if certain organisms are present. Lab personnel look for bacteria, parasites, evidence of drug use, cancer cells, or anything that looks abnormal. Normal test results do not require that a doctor be called, but if anything abnormal is found, the technologist must flag the specimen for further examination by a doctor.

Medical technicians must be willing to work with specimens that may contain contagious diseases. They are frequently gloved and masked and always use sterile procedures. Autoclaves are used to sterilize lab equipment at high temperatures under steam pressure. Technicians use electron microscopes to do biopsies—microdissections on tiny slices of diseased organs. Other equipment they work with are centrifuges, used to separate blood cells from whole blood; electronic cell counters, which are used to count red blood cells for the diagnosis of anemia; and white blood cells for the diagnosis of infections.

Some technicians, especially those in hospitals, have direct contact with patients and draw blood samples. Others stay in the lab and never see patients. They type blood, determine if it's positive or negative, then match blood types and donors for transfusions. They must keep careful records of all their procedures and the names of patients and their doctors.

Technicians also set up and take down equipment and are responsible for stocking supplies. They should be detail-oriented, careful, and especially neat and clean.


Medical technicians who work in hospital labs can expect to make about $26,000 per year; those who work in private clinics or for government agencies are paid slightly less.

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