Medical Laboratory Technicians - What They Do

Medical laboratory technicians conduct routine medical laboratory tests and set up, clean and maintain medical laboratory equipment. They are employed in medical laboratories in hospitals, clinics, research facilities, post-secondary educational institutions and government research laboratories. Pathologists' assistants assist at autopsies and examinations of surgical specimens or perform autopsies under a pathologist's supervision. They are usually employed in hospitals and universities.

Job duties

This group performs some or all of the following duties:

Medical laboratory technicians

  • Collect, sort and prepare blood, tissue and other samples from patients
  • Log and validate patient samples and prepare them for testing
  • Set up medical laboratory equipment
  • Conduct routine laboratory tests and sample analyses
  • Perform quality assurance of testing techniques
  • Clean and maintain medical laboratory and medical laboratory equipment.

Pathologists' assistants

  • Prepare for autopsies by obtaining patients' medical records and arranging for radiographic examinations
  • Prepare, assist with or perform autopsies and surgical specimen examinations under pathologists' supervision
  • Dissect, examine, weigh, photograph and X-ray organs and specimens, collect tissue samples for chemical analysis and record findings
  • Discard specimens according to established safety procedures
  • Clean and maintain instruments, equipment and supplies
  • Develop and maintain processes for laboratory quality control
  • May prepare bodies for release to funeral homes following completion of autopsies
  • May supervise and train junior resident pathologists and morgue attendants.

Job titles

  • pathology assistant
  • medical laboratory assistant
  • medical laboratory technician
  • phlebotomist
Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:

  • Medical laboratory technicians/assistants require completion of a college certificate program in medical laboratory science.
  • Certification by the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science may be required for medical laboratory technicians/assistants.
  • Combined laboratory and X-ray technicians require completion of a combined laboratory X-ray technology program.
  • Pathologists' assistants require some post-secondary courses or a university degree in life sciences and Specialized on-the-job training.

Essential Skills


  • Read directions on laboratory product labels. For example, laboratory assistants may read handling, storage and disposal instructions on container labels. (1)
  • Read logbook entries. For example, they read other technicians logbook entries about problems encountered when processing samples, tasks to be completed and follow-up calls to be made. (1)
  • Read text entries and comments on forms. For example, they read instructions on test requisition forms. They review notes in patients' files about methods to use when drawing patients' blood samples. (2)
  • Read memos. For example, they may read memos announcing the introduction of new diagnostic tests and changes to procedures for shipping specimen samples to outside testing facilities. They may read memos outlining updates to procedures such as those for collecting samples from drug screen patients and for handling and disposing of 'sharps.' (2)
  • Read e-mail from managers and co-workers. For example, they may receive e-mail from their managers notifying them of changes to computer codes and informing them of new suppliers and job postings. They may also read messages from computer technicians informing them of scheduled network maintenance. (2)
  • Read newsletters from their employers and from national and provincial professional associations. They read newsletters to learn about their organizations' initiatives, activities and new services. They read newsletters from national and provincial organizations to find out about continuing education course offerings. (2)
  • May read health industry journals. For example, they may read the Canadian Journal of Medical Laboratory Science to learn about trends in medical laboratory science, medical breakthroughs in the diagnosis and treatment of various diseases, refinements to diagnostic testing procedures and descriptions of new equipment and products. (3)
  • Read procedure and equipment manuals. For example, they read health and safety procedures to be followed when collecting and processing specimens. They read their organizations' policies regarding patients' privacy and procedures to follow when requesting and releasing medical information. They read care and maintenance instructions and procedures for minor repairs in equipment manuals. (3)

Document use

  • Scan labels for specific data such as names, dates, sizes and types. For example, they scan labels on products such as iodine and alcohol for expiration dates and lot numbers. They scan labels on specimen collection tubes and test packages to confirm patients' names and dates of birth. (1)
  • May refer to assembly diagrams in manuals when maintaining and cleaning equipment such as gas chromatography and mass spectrometry units and spectrophotometers. (2)
  • Locate data in lists and tables. For example, technicians working in hospitals read patients' specimen collection checklists. In clinics and laboratories, technicians verify packing lists of samples sent and received. They locate their work hours and duties on weekly and monthly calendars. (2)
  • Scan entry forms for data. For example, they read requisition forms to determine types of tests ordered and locate special instructions. They identify patients' names and personal health care numbers, addresses, dates of birth, telephone numbers, genders and ordering physicians' names and addresses. They may scan quick reference sheets to remind themselves of test requirements such as specimen types, collection tube colours and specimen preparation requirements. (2)
  • Complete a variety of forms. For example, they complete requisition forms when sending specimen samples to government laboratories for tests such as human immunodeficiency virus and venereal disease. They enter patients' personal information and referring physicians. They check boxes to provide data to testing agencies. They indicate the completion of equipment maintenance tasks by checking and initialling completed tasks on maintenance forms. They record hours worked, breaks taken and training attended on weekly timesheets. Medical laboratory technicians in hospitals initial completed specimen collection checklists and note any complications such as patients' refusals and missed attempts. Medical laboratory technicians at blood banks complete inventory-tracking forms by recording numbers and purposes of blood units used. They may enter cost centre data, purchase order numbers and item descriptions in office and laboratory supply order forms. (3)


  • Write reminders, notes for co-workers and entries in logbooks. For example, they write reminder notes about supplies to be ordered and telephone messages for co-workers. They enter short descriptions in logbooks about tasks to be completed by following shifts, problems encountered with equipment and errors in sample preparations. (1)
  • Write e-mail to co-workers and managers on a variety of matters. For example, they e-mail co-workers requesting their availability for shift exchanges. They inform managers of inventory orders they have placed. (1)
  • Write brief comments in patients' files and on collection lists. For example, in patient files they note difficulties in accessing patients' veins and recommend types and gauges of needles to use. They note reasons for inability to collect specimens such as missed attempts to access veins and patients' refusals on collection lists. (2)
  • Complete incident reports. For example, when accidents occur, they write detailed narrative accounts of their observations. They include details about the locations of incidents, injuries observed, actions taken and their interactions with patients and witnesses. (2)


Money Math

  • May receive cash payments and provide change to patients. For example, medical laboratory technicians in private clinics receive payment for tests not covered by medical health plans. (1)

Scheduling, Budgeting & Accounting Math

  • May record and reconcile cash, debit and credit card payments received. For example, medical laboratory technicians in private clinics count the petty cash float each morning and reconcile receipts with money on hand at the end of each shift. (2)

Measurement and Calculation Math

  • Measure time and physical properties such as the volumes, sizes and weights of biological samples. For example, technicians in medical laboratories measure volumes of blood, urine, water and chemicals using graduated containers such as beakers and syringes. They weigh precise amounts of chemicals and dyes when preparing slides and testing samples. Blood bank technicians fill bags to specified weights. (1)
  • Calculate time intervals, total weights and quantities for mixtures. For example, they distribute specified quantities of large specimen samples into secondary testing vials. They calculate volumes of patients' urine samples collected over twenty-four hour periods. They calculate quantities for batches of cleaning solutions. Phlebotomists record start and end times of each blood donation collection and calculate total lengths of time taken to draw donations. (2)

Data Analysis Math

  • Track inventory and order supplies when quantities are below established limits. For example, blood bank technicians manage inventories of donation bags used at blood donor clinics. They subtract numbers of donation bags used from original numbers supplied to them to determine reorder quantities. (1)
  • Compare counts and readings to established standards. For example, medical laboratory technicians in hospitals count numbers of specimen samples collected and compare them to numbers on ward collection lists to ensure that collections are complete. Technicians in medical laboratories review test results to locate readings that are outside the range values established for specific tests. They analyze the results of equipment calibration tests to ensure the equipment is operating correctly. (1)
  • May collect data and prepare operating statistics. For example, they may calculate numbers of samples received and procedures and tests carried out. They average numbers of patients seen hourly, weekly and monthly. They calculate average times taken to process specimens and conduct tests. (2)

Numerical Estimation

  • Estimate times needed for tests, procedures and appointments. Medical laboratory technicians in walk-in clinics estimate patients' wait times based on numbers of patients currently waiting and types and amounts of specimens to be collected. (2)

Oral communication

  • Greet and verify the identities of patients. For example, medical laboratory technicians greet patients and verify contact and health care information to ensure they are collecting the specimen from the correct patient. (1)
  • Discuss ongoing work with co-workers and managers. For example, they discuss work assignments and schedules with their managers. They discuss changes in policies and procedures, new and interesting medical developments and health concerns such as the potential for epidemics during staff meetings. Medical laboratory technicians in hospitals discuss ward assignments, floor coverage and backup plans for collecting missed attempt specimen samples with their co-workers. In clinics, they confirm pick-up and delivery times with couriers and ask information technology staff for assistance in resolving database malfunctions. (2)
  • Give instructions and provide reassurance to patients before, during and after specimen collection. They explain each step of collection procedures and comfort and reassure nervous patients. Technicians in hospitals may provide instructions for proper use of home test sampling kits and special collection procedures. Technicians in blood donor clinics give post-donation instructions to blood donors. (2)
  • Discuss sample collection and medical testing with co-workers, managers and colleagues. For example, they discuss the technical details of specimen collection, labelling, storage and analysis with their co-workers and managers. They receive directions for testing specimens from their managers. They speak with nurses and physicians to clarify and request additional information on patients' test requisition forms. They may give instructions to new trainees and answer their questions. For example, they explain and demonstrate specimen collection and test preparation procedures, answer trainees' questions and provide feedback and support. (3)
  • May discuss their performance reviews, annual learning goals and incident reports with managers. For example, they provide their managers with details of incidents which may result in complaints that require their managers' intervention. (3)


Problem Solving

  • Face equipment failures and malfunctions that prevent them from collecting and processing samples. For example, technicians working in hospitals and private clinics may find that the software needed to print specimen collection labels is not working properly. They contact their information technology departments and handwrite patients' information on specimen labels until the software is repaired. (1)
  • Are unable to collect specimens and samples because patients will not cooperate. For example, phlebotomists may find that patients refuse to have blood samples drawn. They note this on collection lists and inform supervising nurses. (2)
  • Are unable to complete tests due to missing, insufficient and contaminated samples. For example, technicians in walk-in clinics find that urine samples collected by patients in their homes and brought to the clinic are contaminated. They contact the referring physicians and request that the patients return to have new samples collected at the clinic. (2)

Decision Making

  • Choose tools and methods for collecting and handling biological samples such as blood, excretions and tissues. For example, phlebotomists select gauges of needles for drawing blood samples. They consider the sizes, locations and proximity of veins to the skins' surface to ensure samples will be quickly and efficiently drawn. They decide if adjustments are necessary to increase blood flow such as repositioning donors' arms and needle placements. (2)

Critical Thinking

  • Determine the emotional preparedness and alertness of patients. For example, blood bank technicians observe patients' body language and responses during intake interviews. They observe patients' colouring and alertness prior to releasing them from blood donor clinics. (2)
  • Judge the suitability of biological samples for testing and analysis. They consider the types of tests requested, the available specimen sample amounts and the conditions under which samples were collected. Cytology technicians judge the suitability of tissue samples by examining their sizes, shapes, colours and textures. (3)

Job Task Planning and Organizing

Medical laboratory technicians are assigned duties such as reception, specimen collection and preparation of specimens by their managers. The technicians plan their job tasks within these assigned duties. Their job task planning may be disrupted by couriers, equipment malfunctions and special rush order requests from physicians. Once these disruptions are handled, they return to their regular tasks. (2)

Significant Use of Memory

  • Remember specific test codes when entering physician test requisitions in databases.

Finding Information

  • Find information about laboratory tests and procedures. They ask co-workers and managers for clarification of protocols and testing procedures. They search databases, company memos and policy and procedures manuals for additional information. (2)

Digital technology

  • Use databases. For example, they enter patients' names, addresses, dates of birth and vital statistics, referring physicians' contact information, payment methods, special directions and tests required into medical records databases. They use entered data to create specimen collection labels. They access patients' names and health care numbers and print collection lists and instructions for preparing specimens for testing. They print summary reports indicating numbers and types of collections completed each day. (2)
  • Use communication software. For example, they exchange e-mail with co-workers and managers. (2)
  • Use Internet. For example, they may access provincial and national professional association web sites when searching for continuing education courses. (2)

Other Essential Skills:

Working with Others

Medical laboratory technicians work independently to complete their tasks such as entering patients' information into databases, collecting specimens and preparing specimens for testing. In large hospitals, medical laboratory technicians may work with partners to collect specimens from patients. They may provide training and give instructions to new staff. (1)

Continuous Learning

Medical laboratory technicians must remain knowledgeable about testing protocols and skilled in specimen collection procedures. They learn through the completion of their daily tasks and interactions with co-workers. They may read medical industry magazines such as CheckUP to become knowledgeable of emerging health concerns. Their organizations may provide seminars on changes to policies and procedures, patient privacy and confidentiality and methods for safeguarding against airborne infection. They may attend seminars offered by provincial and national professional associations. (2)