Laboratory technicians at work

A Step-by-Step Guide to Collecting and Analyzing Specimens

Learn about the procedures, equipment, and requirements involved with collecting and analyzing specimens.

Laboratory technicians at work

As a medical laboratory technician, you play a critical role in the health care system. From routine medical tests to more advanced ones, your work helps doctors identify severe illnesses. A medical laboratory technician’s primary responsibility is collecting and analyzing blood and other bodily fluids samples. This role is a critical component of the diagnostic process. Doctors or surgeons order these tests, but the medical laboratory technician or the medical laboratory scientist typically tests the samples.

As a medical laboratory technician, you can have a fulfilling career impacting patient health by assisting with medical diagnosis. Plus, it’s a career in demand as the population ages and requires additional medical care. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the job market for medical laboratory technicians will grow by 7 percent between now and 2030.

Read on to learn more about this essential skill and its role in the healthcare system. Learn more about becoming a medical laboratory technician.

What’s the Definition of Specimen Collection and Analysis?

Specimen collection and analysis is collecting blood or urine from a patient and analyzing it in the lab. Medical laboratory technicians can be confused with phlebotomists, but they are different. While medical laboratory technicians and phlebotomists collect blood samples, medical laboratory technicians also collect other bodily fluids. Phlebotomists only deal with blood samples.

Once the sample is collected, a medical laboratory technician analyzes it to look for abnormalities. After the sample is analyzed, the blood or urine sample will return normal or abnormal findings. These results are passed to the doctor or surgeon who ordered the test.

What Is the Purpose of Specimen Collection and Analysis?

Laboratory testing performed by a medical laboratory technician contributes vital information about a patient’s health. Accuracy depends on patient preparation, diligent specimen collection and handling, and thorough sample analysis. Doctors and surgeons then use specimen collection and analysis results to help diagnose patient health problems.

How Long Does It Take for Specimen Collection and Analysis?

Collecting urine or blood samples takes just a few minutes. Some patients require a single sample, while others, such as those needing a glucose tolerance test, may need multiple/timed specimen collections.

With most common blood and urine tests, the results from the medical laboratory technician are usually delivered to the doctor within 24 hours. A complete metabolic panel test can take one to three days.

What Are the Most Common Blood Tests that Are Analyzed?

Blood tests are the most common specimens analyzed by medical laboratory technicians. Below are four of the most common blood tests ordered by doctors:

  • Complete blood count (CBC) — This test helps evaluate your overall health, and tests for a wide range of health issues. A CBC test the features and components of your blood including red blood cell count, white blood cell count, and others.
  • Basic metabolic panel — This test measures common electrolytes in the blood as well as other compounds. Examples include calcium, glucose, sodium, potassium, carbon dioxide, chloride, blood urea nitrogen, and creatinine.
  • Complete metabolic panel — This blood test measures all the factors mentioned in the basic panel above, and it adds two protein tests (albumin and total protein), as well as four tests of liver function. A doctor may order a complete panel to determine a patient’s liver or kidney function.
  • Lipid panel — Lipid panels are analyzed by medical laboratory technicians to find the amount of cholesterol in the body. This is broken into two designations, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).

Lab technician conducting experiments

What Are Some Goals When Analyzing Specimens?

In many cases, there is a goal with the specimen submitted for testing, such as to confirm pregnancy or high cholesterol. These are a few of the tests which look for a specific finding:

  • Blood pregnancy tests — Most people are familiar with at-home pregnancy tests that produce results from a urine sample. A medical laboratory technician will conduct testing on a blood sample looking for quantitative or qualitative results. A qualitative blood test confirms a positive or negative pregnancy since sometimes an at-home test can be inaccurate. A quantitative blood test details the amount of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), a hormone produced during pregnancy, present in the woman’s body.
  • Thyroid tests — When a medical laboratory technician runs a thyroid panel, the goal is to test for the presence of thyroid hormone in the blood. The technician will look for thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), along with other measurements. The results can determine if a person has a medical condition affecting their thyroid, such as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
  • Cancer tests — There are different blood test types used by medical laboratory technicians to detect the presence of cancer cells. The test ordered by the doctor will depend on the type of cancer they suspect may be present.
  • Sexually transmitted infection tests — Blood samples can be used for detection of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) which often consist of rapid HIV tests. Medical laboratory technicians also look for the presence of herpes, hepatitis, and syphilis, and other STIs present in blood. Swabs and urine tests are simpler but may require a culture to be grown from the swab, which takes more time than bloodwork.
  • Anemia tests — If a doctor suspects a person has anemia, a condition where the patient lacks enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to the body’s tissues, a blood test is ordered. This may include a hemoglobin and hematocrit test, commonly called an H and H test.

Who Performs Specimen Collection and Analysis?

Various medical professionals can collect blood and urine specimens that the medical laboratory technician analyzes.

The analysis is typically performed by a medical laboratory technician for simpler tests. A medical laboratory scientist or even a pathologist may perform more complex testing.

What Training is Required to Collect Specimens and Analyze Them?

To become a medical laboratory technician, a person needs to earn a Medical Laboratory Technician associate degree from an accredited institution. Brookline College offers an excellent program enabling students to earn their Medical Laboratory Technician degree in as few as 64 weeks.

Once you have your degree, you are eligible to be certified by one of two major credentialing organizations: ASCP Board of Certification or American Medical Technologists.

The final step is to acquire a license in the state you want to work, although not all states require this.

What Equipment is Used to Analyze Specimens?

A wide range of testing equipment is used, and the equipment can vary with the lab’s size and function. Below is a a list of the possible lab equipment used by the medical laboratory technicians:

  • Microscopes
  • Hematology analyzers
  • Blood gas analyzers
  • Autoclaves
  • Hotplates
  • Chemistry analyzers
  • Differential counters
  • Histology and cytology equipment
  • Urinalysis analyzers
  • DNA analyzers
  • Gamma counters
  • Microplate readers/washers
  • Incubators
  • Point of care analyzers
  • Immunoassay analyzers

Each piece of equipment performs a particular role in analyzing fluid samples. During your training, you’ll learn each piece of lab equipment’s function and how to use them to perform an analysis.

Tips in wood block letters next to a lightbulb

What Tips Can Be Used to Avoid Problems with Specimen Collection and Analysis?

Careful attention and following protocols can eliminate most of the potential problems that can occur with specimen collection. It is necessary to ensure the materials you are using for collection are used in strict accordance with their instructions. A common problem is collecting an insufficient amount of the sample necessary to conduct the requisite testing. Ensuring you gather the appropriate amount can help you void this issue.

Here are a few tips to follow with the general collection process:

  • Double-check the patient information to ensure accuracy.
  • Ensure the containers being used for collection have not expired.
  • Draw the samples in the proper sequence as indicated by the test you’re performing.
  • Gather enough of the sample to perform the necessary tests.
  • Use the proper container/tube for specimen preservation.
  • If required, mix the specimen with additive immediately after collection by inverting 5-10 times.
  • Carefully tighten specimen container lids to avoid leakage and/or potential contamination.
  • Label specimens immediately and provide all the pertinent information.
  • Maintain and transport the specimen at the temperature indicated in the test requirements.

Each test requires a specific methodology, so it’s important you follow each step to ensure that you get accurate results.

Ready to Become a Medical Laboratory Technician?

You can enjoy a rewarding career growing in demand as a medical laboratory technician. Plus, you can have the opportunity wot work in a variety of settings, such as outpatient centers, colleges, and universities to large city general hospitals.

Are you considering becoming a medical lab technician? At Brookline College, we offer an accelerated medical lab technician program where you can earn the necessary Associate of Applied Science degree in as little as 64 weeks. Now is the time to take the first steps toward your new career.