Assistant Practitioner (Medical Lab)

The Job and What's Involved

Assistant practitioners (also known as associate practitioners) who work in medical laboratories analyse samples of body tissue and fluids taken from hospital patients, including blood, urine and faeces. Their work helps doctors and biomedical scientists to diagnose and treat patients.

The role is practical and varied, and can include:

  • Receiving and checking samples.
  • Making up chemical solutions.
  • Making stocks of 'culture media' (used to grow micro-organisms when testing samples).
  • Phlebotomy/venepuncture (taking samples of blood from patients).
  • Sterilising equipment.
  • Labeling and sorting tissue samples.
  • Separating blood serum and plasma.
  • Loading and operating machines (e.g. pneumatic tube systems, analysers).
  • Preparing and analysing quality control material.
  • Maintaining stocks of consumable items.
  • Disposing of chemical or biological waste.
  • Inputting patients' data into computer systems.
  • Providing written and verbal reports of test results.
  • Answering telephone enquiries.
  • Keeping and filing records.

Assistant practitioners may specialise in a particular field, or work in a range of different areas. The main fields are:

Biochemistry - analysing blood and other biological materials to diagnose diseases such as diabetes, testing liver and kidney function, detecting poisons or drug misuse and monitoring the progress of treatment.

Transfusion science - identifying blood groups and testing for compatibility of donor and recipient blood, as well as preparing blood transfusions and fluids to be given to patients.

Haematology - testing and counting different blood cells, identifying abnormalities and estimating haemoglobin levels to help in the diagnosis of anaemia, haemophilia and leukaemia.

Histopathology - preparing very thin tissue samples for examination and using microscopes for investigation and to establish the cause of illness.

Medical microbiology - isolating and identifying micro-organisms and testing their susceptibility to antibiotics for the diagnosis of conditions such as meningitis, food poisoning, urinary tract infections, tuberculosis and septicaemia.

Virology - identifying infections such as hepatitis, AIDS and rubella and carrying out selected screening of people at risk.

Cytology - preparing and studying, using a microscope, samples of cellular material collected from patients in order to identify abnormal cells.

Immunology - investigating a patient's immune system to diagnose and treat conditions and diseases such as allergies, tumours and AIDS and carry out tissue typing for tissue grafts and organ transplants.

Assistant practitioners usually work 37.5 hours a week, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. There can be some evening or weekend work. Part-time work is also possible.

Assistant practitioners work in a hospital laboratory or in an outpatients' clinic. Sometimes they work directly with patients on the wards. The work can involve standing or sitting for long periods, and bending and carrying heavy batches of samples. There is also the risk of exposure to hazardous substances (although protective systems are in place).

The work is carried out in clean and sometimes sterile conditions. At times, it may be necessary to wear protective overalls, coats, gloves, glasses and masks.

For assistant practitioners working in the NHS the normal starting salary is £13,233 a year. Experienced assistant practitioners can earn up to £18,157 a year and Senior assistant practitioners may earn up to £21,318 a year.

There are additional payments for weekend and evening work.

Assistant practitioners who work in and around London are paid higher salaries.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Most assistant practitioners in the UK are employed by the NHS in hospital pathology laboratories. There are also opportunities in:

  • Private hospitals.
  • The Health Protection Agency.
  • The National Blood Service.
  • Pharmaceutical and independent laboratories.
  • University and research institute laboratories.
  • Veterinary service laboratories.
  • The Health & Safety Executive and forensic laboratories.
  • The armed forces and various other government agency laboratories.

Vacancies are advertised on the NHS Jobs website at www.jobs.nhs.uk as well as in hospital vacancy newsletters, hospital websites and local newspapers. It may be worth approaching local NHS pathology laboratories directly.

Education and Training

There are no formal entry requirements for assistant practitioners, although it can be helpful to have GCSE's (A*-C) in English, maths and science or equivalent qualifications such as a BTEC First Diploma in applied science.

A small number of NHS trusts in England offer cadet schemes in healthcare science. Healthcare science cadets may work towards NVQ Level 2 in laboratory and associated technical activities and a BTEC National Qualification in applied science. They spend time at college and on work-based learning in rotational work placements. The scheme lasts two years. Applicants need at least four GCSE's at grade D or above.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Experienced senior colleagues train new assistant practitioners. Training covers topics such as:

- Health and safety
- Routine laboratory procedures and emergency procedures
- Maintaining and using laboratory equipment
- Working with hazardous materials
- Preparing and working with specimens
- Disposing of waste materials safely

Assistant practitioners sometimes work towards certificates of competence for the safe performance of various duties.

They could also work towards NVQ Level 2 in clinical laboratory support or NVQ Level 1, 2 or 3 in laboratory and associated technical activities.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An assistant practitioner should be:

  • Responsible and mature, as patients' lives can depend on their work.
  • Good at practical tasks.
  • Well organised with a methodical approach.
  • Accurate in their work, and able to pay close attention to detail.
  • Able to concentrate for long periods.
  • Good at working under pressure to meet deadlines.
  • Reassuring and able to put patients at their ease.
  • Able to work well as part of a team.
  • Not squeamish.

Your Long Term Prospects

There is no clear career structure for assistant practitioners and more senior posts are relatively uncommon. Some move to related NHS jobs such as pharmacy technician or cervical cytology screener.

With further qualifications, assistant practitioners can progress to a variety of positions as biomedical or clinical scientists. Such positions usually require degree- level qualifications. There are some traineeships available.

Get Further Information

Health and Safety Executive (HSE),
Rose Court, 2 Southwark Bridge, London SE1 9HS
Tel: 020 7556 2102
Website: www.hse.gov.uk

Health Protection Agency,
7th Floor, Holborn Gate, 330 High Holborn, London WC1V 7PP
Tel: 020 7759 2700
Website: www.hpa.org.uk

Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS),
12 Coldbath Square, London EC1R 5HL
Tel: 020 7713 0214
Website: www.ibms.org

National Blood Service (NBS)
Tel: 0300 123 2323
Website: www.blood.co.uk

NHS Careers
Tel: 0345 606 0655
Websites: www.nhscareers.nhs.uk and www.stepintothenhs.nhs.uk

Skills for Health, 2nd Floor,
Goldsmiths House, Broad Plain, Bristol BS2 0JP
Tel: 0117 922 1155
Website: www.skillsforhealth.org.uk

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