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Shifting Careers: Medical field offers stable career options

August 27, 2018

When his corporate sales job was eliminated after nearly 30 years, Gene Viney wasted no time singling out his next profession.

“I wanted to get something in the medical field because I felt that that was a stable career path,” says Viney, 59, of Fitchburg. “This field just seemed very interesting to me with all the different aspects. I felt comfortable that I could handle what you needed to learn to be successful in the job.”

Now he works as a medical laboratory technician at Meriter in Madison, an in-demand profession in the region, given its ample hospitals and clinics. Medical lab techs collect samples and perform tests to analyze body fluids, tissue and other substances, making them an integral part of health care.

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development projects a 6.5 percent increase in demand for medical laboratory technicians from 2016-26 in Wisconsin. As baby boomers retire from these jobs and health care expands in general, due in part to that same aging generation, qualified students with technical degrees are seeing nearly 100 percent placement rates after graduation.

In the lab, working as a chemistry technician, Viney receives specimens through pneumatic tubes like the ones that send canisters from bank tellers to drive-through customers. These tests include tissues for biopsy and blood samples from possible heart attack patients. Viney puts test tubes into automated machines called analysers. Specific to certain tests, these analysers test multiple specimens quickly. The machines check barcodes on the tube to confirm that the label aligns with the test ordered for each patient. The results of tests that aren’t urgent are automatically uploaded to patients’ charts. In some cases, lab techs must get accurate test results back to hospital staff quickly in cases like the emergency room and neo-natal intensive care unit.

The other half of Viney’s time is spent as a blood bank technician, testing patients’ blood and matching it for transfusions, as well as running blood tests.

“It sounds pretty simple, but patients have antibodies, so we have to determine what the antibody is if we don’t have a history,” Viney says. “We have to make sure that the blood we give them doesn’t have that antigen that their antibody is against.”

The Medical Laboratory Technician program at Madison Area Technical College, where Viney attended, offers an associate’s degree in two formats: a five-semester program and an accelerated, mostly online program for people with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, biology and microbiology. All students must pass a national exam to be licensed and employed.

Throughout the five-semester program, students take classes that mix theory and lab skills. After passing first-semester phlebotomy and basic lab skills classes, students can work in labs — at a lower wage than those with technical degrees. Later in the course, classes like hematology, microbiology and chemistry expose students to potential areas of specialization. The final semester includes two clinical experiences. Students work in Madison hospitals and clinics, as well as smaller locations in surrounding cities, to experience different lab sizes and specializations.

The accelerated program is largely online, except for meetings Thursday evenings and every other Saturday to complete labs. The program lasts from August through June. Participants then take part in six weeks of clinicals. Students who earn the technical degree and a bachelor’s degree, either before or after the program, can sit for another certification — medical technologist — after two years in the field. Medical technologists, also known as clinical laboratory scientists, often conduct research, repair and advise on equipment, and specialize with in-depth knowledge in hematology, blood banking and microbiology. The degree often ushers in higher wages and management opportunities.

The constant influx of samples in medical labs keeps technicians on their toes.

“The environment can be fast-paced, very demanding, at times stressful,” says Viney, who’s worked as a senior lab tech for five years.

But the work is worth it.

“You’re feeling like you really are helping people that need help,” he says. “There’s a satisfaction when you’re helping people that are in need.

“Overall, I really enjoy the job.”

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