Lab workers keep up the pace

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 21, 2003

Sometimes patients visit the Austin Medical Center Laboratory to give a blood sample. Others times, they endure a cotton swab down their throats for a strep culture.

But after that sample is taken and before the doctor gets the results back, what happens in the meantime?

Most samples taken at Austin Medical Center are tested at its own laboratory, which is open 24 hours a day. The 35 people who work there use their scientific knowledge and analyzers to run tests on samples. The lab recently expanded to make more room for the machines and to create a larger conference room.

Email newsletter signup

Medical lab technology, technicians said, is always changing.

This week is National Medical Laboratory Week, a time dedicated to making hospital staff and the general public more aware of the work lab technicians do and the career possibilities within the field.

"Our mission is to get the best possible results to the patients and physician," said Ann Tompkins, director of the AMC laboratory.

Blood and urine samples are common, as are stool and tissue samples. Depending on what tests need to be run, different analyzers are used.

The technicians patients probably see most are the phlebotomists. They take blood samples and label them for the lab technicians. They also visit nursing and group homes to take samples from those who need tests, but cannot make it to AMC.

One of the most important parts of lab work is collecting the sample, said Val Budd, a medical technologist.

"Your results are only as good as your sample is," Budd said.

Jessica Banks, a phlebotomist, said "all the people I meet and the experience you get" are her favorite parts of her job.

"You're always on the go," she said.

Banks is currently studying for her certification in phlebotomy. Many others in her position also are studying to be nurses.

Lab technicians have either two-year or four-year degrees. A technician with a four-year degree is called a medical technologist; a person with a two-year degree is a medical lab technician.

But they all do similar work and rotate to different areas of the lab, Budd said. Each person specializes in an area of the lab.

Kathy Fitzlaff, a medical lab technician, supervises the blood bank. That job, like all others in the lab, requires absolute accuracy. If a person's blood is typed wrong, serious health consequences can result.

The busiest part of the lab is the microbiology area. That's where samples such at strep and stool are tested. There, the samples are put on petri dishes where bacteria can grow. Sometimes the technicians know by just looking at a sample what the patient has. Other times, they look through a microscope to determine the result.

If no bacteria is growing in the petri dish, that can indicate the patient doesn't have enough healthy bacteria in their system, Budd said. The technicians also let doctors know of those situations.

Lab technicians are always in demand. For every person in the profession, there are three openings, Fitzlaff said. Skills in math, science and computers are required for the job. While machines do many of the tests, technicians have to make sure the results are accurate and fit a patient's situation.

Technicians attend conferences and participate in nation-wide teleconferences to earn continuing education credits and to learn about new technologies in their field.

"Everything is changing so fast," Budd said. "That's kind of what makes it fun."

Cari Quam can be reached at 434-2235 or by e-mail at