What Is a Clinical Laboratory?
A clinical laboratorian uses chemistry to evaluate patient health. S/he may evaluate blood, study DNA, examine tissue, or study cells. S/he may be a research scientist or a developer of diagnostic products. Clinical chemists have traditionally worked in laboratories, but they also work in academic environments or in industry.
Clinical laboratorians research and develop laboratory procedures that help physicians make earlier, more precise diagnoses and tailor therapy for patients. As technology develops—in "hot" areas like molecular biology or transplant medicine, for example—clinical chemists apply their knowledge to develop practical applications of these advances. Automation is changing laboratory and hospital operations. For example, robots may transport patient specimens to the laboratory, or tests may be done at the patient's bedside. Increased automation has caused jobs to shift, closing some doors but opening others: consulting with physicians and other healthcare providers, researching and developing new diagnostic products, establishing standards for new products, developing instrument systems for diagnostics manufacturers, working with clinicians to test new products, and monitoring new products for the FDA.
The clinical laboratory scientist has an important role on the health care team. Using laboratory equipment, the clinical laboratory scientist analyzes body fluid samples, such as blood, urine, or DNA samples. These results of these analyses provide information that helps physicians diagnose or monitor a patient's state of health or disease. The clinical laboratory scientist typically works in a clinical laboratory setting, such as a hospital or reference laboratory. Other work settings may include academic research centers, physician’s offices, and industry.
Your "Typical" Day
You are a member of the healthcare team.
In Clinics or Hospitals
You'll see "inside the body" by using a drop of blood or a sliver of tissue as a window to the body's health or disease. You'll identify drugs, hormones, even certain tumors, by how they react to specific antibodies. You may use a strand of hair to determine drug use or saliva to detect HIV (the virus responsible for AIDS). Your tools will range from simple test tubes to complex computerized instruments.
The physician will decide which tests to run, often basing the decision on information you provide about how specific, sensitive, and reliable the test is. In larger medical centers, you may conduct research or set up testing protocols. Your ultimate goal is providing services that help healthcare workers diagnose and treat patients. You'll provide information to help physicians follow the course of therapy to ensure the patient's recovery. You will always communicate information to the physician that will be crucial in managing a patient's health or disease.
You may develop tests or test methods that make tests better, cheaper, or more effective. You may invent instruments that process tests better. You may do research, conduct patient studies, or test an assay's reliability. You may also train the sales staff in the product's or instrument's features, operations, and benefits, so that your sales staff can convey accurate and timely information to the laboratories purchasing your products and services.
You might run laboratories that study epidemics or identify toxic agents in the environment. You might serve on a panel that develops guidelines for highly specialized activities, such as laboratory inspections or even the space program. You may interact with chemists in other countries to get new data about how diet affects health or whether new tests can predict disease before any disease symptoms emerge.
In Any Setting
You might teach medical or medical technology students. You might write about your discoveries or your achievements in professional journals. You might be asked to speak at scientific meetings, or be an expert witness in civil or criminal court. You may be involved in designing your own laboratory, interviewing, hiring, and training your workers, or setting up and running a quality control program.
Your typical day will never by typical, will always be interesting, will challenge you to be a scientist, manager, business person, and technology guru—all rolled into one caring human being who happens to like chemistry.
On the Horizon: Change and More Change
The clinical laboratory field is undergoing dramatic change, and for those who can take on the challenge, holds a broad spectrum of possibilities.
Clinical chemistry is an equal opportunity employer—M.D. or Ph.D., medical technologist or technician—you advance on the strength of your training, dedication, and initiative. Studying for a career in clinical chemistry is a great place to start!