Most medical laboratory assistants 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:
Laboratory assistants may specialise in one laboratory area, or may work in a range of different areas. The main ones are:
Clinical Chemistry - analysing blood and other biological materials to diagnose diseases such as diabetes, test liver and kidney function, detect poisons or drug misuse and monitor 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 - these tests help in the diagnosis of anaemia, haemophilia and leukaemia.
Histopathology - preparing and investigating very thin tissue samples ('cut ups') for examination using microscopes to establish the cause of illness.
Medical Microbiology - isolating and identifying micro-organisms and testing their susceptibility to antibiotics; diseases diagnosed can include meningitis, food poisoning, urinary tract infections, tuberculosis and septicaemia.
Virology - identifying infections such as hepatitis, AIDS and rubella; also carrying out selected screening of people at risk.
Cytology - preparing and studying samples of cellular material collected from patients - after staining the cells, abnormal cells can be identified using a microscope.
Immunology - investigating a patient's immune system to diagnose and treat conditions and diseases such as allergies, tumours and AIDS; this work includes tissue typing for tissue grafts and organ transplants.
Medical laboratory assistants 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.
Laboratory assistants 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, bending and carrying heavy batches of samples. There is also the risk of exposure to hazardous substances.
The work is carried out in clean and sometimes sterile conditions. Protective overalls, coats, gloves, glasses and masks may be necessary at times.
Starting salaries for trainees may be around £12,177 a year. There are additional payments for weekend and evening work. Staff working in London are paid higher salaries.
There are over 3,000 medical laboratory assistants working in the UK. Most are employed by the NHS in hospital pathology laboratories. There are also opportunities in:
Vacancies are advertised on the NHS jobs websites - www.jobs.nhs.uk, www.jobs.scot.nhs.uk, www.hpssjobs.com (Northern Ireland) and www.wales.nhs.uk/jobs/ - as well as in hospital vacancy newsletters and websites, and in local newspapers. It may be worth approaching local NHS pathology laboratories directly.
There are no formal entry requirements for medical laboratory assistants, although some hospitals require qualifications. It can be helpful to have at least four GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) 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 for these applicants.
New medical laboratory assistants are trained by experienced senior colleagues. Their training covers topics such as:
Medical laboratory assistants sometimes work towards certificates of competence for the safe performance of various duties.
They could also work towards NVQ/SVQ Level 2 in Clinical Laboratory Support or NVQ/SVQ Levels 1, 2 or 3 in Laboratory and Associated Technical Activities.
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A medical laboratory assistant should be:
There is no clear career structure for medical laboratory assistants, and more senior posts are relatively uncommon. Some move to related NHS jobs such as pharmacy technician or cervical cytology screener.
With further qualifications, laboratory assistants can progress to a variety of positions as biomedical or clinical scientists (many of these require a relevant degree-level qualification).
Health Protection Agency, 7th Floor,
Holborn Gate, 330 High Holborn,
London WC1V 7PP
Tel: 020 7759 2700
Health and Safety Executive (HSE),
Rose Court, 2 Southwark Bridge,
London SE1 9HS
Tel: 0845 345 0055
Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS),
12 Coldbath Square, London EC1R 5HL
Tel: 020 7713 0214
National Blood Service (NBS)
Tel: 0845 7711 711
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.