Who's who in the laboratory
Specimen collectors (phlebotomists) are expert in all types of collection but especially blood collection (phlebotomy). Some may have a nursing background but most have been trained by one of the pathology organisations or by external training providers. They need to be technically highly-skilled, but also be able to put patients, who may be feeling nervous, at their ease. For more see Collecting samples, Understanding Your Tests
Samples have to be stored carefully, sometimes in special transportation liquids or at specific temperatures. They must also be transferred to the lab as quickly as possible. Although this might be just a matter of walking up the corridor in a hospital, it could mean a trip by air of hundreds of kilometres from a doctor’s rooms in a remote area to a big city laboratory.
Once the samples reach the laboratory they are registered and the patient’s ID, the doctor’s notes and the test details are entered into the laboratory computer system. For more, see Patient Identification, Understanding Your Tests. This is the job of the specimen processing staff who also carry out first-stage steps such as centrifugation and aliquotting (dividing the specimen up into smaller portions for specific tests) and forwarding test samples to the correct part of the laboratory.
Behind the medical and scientific teams are often many support people. Many of the jobs in the pathology lab are similar to those in other large organisations -- administration staff, data entry teams, IT support, storespeople and courier drivers. There are also often doctors’ liaison and patient’s liaison teams, as well as training, marketing, business development and management personnel.
Many samples have to be processed before they can be tested. For instance, tissue samples must be dissected, embedded in wax, sliced into thin wafers of tissue –about a cell thick - and stained before being placed on a slide to be viewed under the microscope. For more, see Tissue Preparation, Understanding Your Tests. Blood and bodily fluids are smeared onto a slide to be examined under a microscope. These jobs are usually handled by laboratory scientists and technicians who must be technically highly-skilled and have the ability to work accurately and dexterously, often at speed if the test is urgent.
Some tests are very labour intensive. Many are dependent on observations made through the microscope and the pathologists and scientists are required to make professional judgements based on what they see. They may be looking for a just few abnormal cells among hundreds of thousands on a Pap smear, or identifying unusual patterns of cells in a blood sample that indicate leukaemia.
Some scientists work with advanced assays and technology, setting parameters and interpreting results. Many tests are at least partly automated. Many chemical and immunoassay tests measuring simple chemicals or proteins and haematology tests analysing the cells in blood are performed on large and sophisticated automated analysers. The scientific and technical staff operating these analysers must have a very wide knowledge of biological science, the principles of the assays being performed, the mechanics and software of the analyser and the sometimes, subtle signs that may indicate potential problems. They must also have a sound knowledge of quality control procedures and the interpretation of QC results since maintenance of analytical quality is central to all laboratory operations.