A histotechnologist, known as a HLT, is part of a medical laboratory team that works with human, animal or plant specimens to diagnosis disease and abnormalities. Their main function is to prepare tissue samples for analysis. This is a complex process and involves putting the specimen through a variety of preparatory steps. These steps include staining, processing, trimming, and other techniques that require a specific skill set. To achieve accurate testing, the HLT must have the skills and training to perform complex scientific testing. The HLT may also do some analysis on his or her own.
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Using the scientific process, the HLT prepares the specimen, then performs a series of tests depending on what the practitioner requests. An example would be to test a biopsy for the presence of cancerous cells. The process requires meticulous attention to the scientific process. If the HLT is sloppy, or misses a step, the results will be inaccurate. Inaccurate results could have catastrophic consequences for the donor of the sample.
Upon receipt of the sample, the HLT begins preparing it by “grossing" or trimming the specimen so that it will fit onto the slide. There are numerous ways to accomplish this step and all require advanced training and skills. Once the specimen is ready it has to be treated so that it does not decompose. Specimens may also require staining, embedding or sectioning. All of these functions must be done to exact specifications following a procedure approved by the lab. Failure to follow each step exactly will result in erroneous results.
It is easy to confuse the roles of the histotechnician, or HT, and the HLT. The HT receives their training through a laboratory-sponsored program or completes an Associate Degree in Applied Science Technology. Upon completion of either accredited program, they can take the licensing exam for a HT. The HT can assist the HLT but cannot perform many of the higher-level tasks.
To obtain the HLT, the person must complete a bachelor-level program. The HLT performs more complex slide preparations, some basic microscopy examinations, teaches, and can sit for postgraduate certification. They often supervise a group of HTs in the laboratory. They most often report directly to a pathologist or laboratory director.
Either role requires an individual with a strong science background. The HLT must demonstrate an eye for detail, the ability to concentrate intently for long periods of time, the ability to work in a high-stress environment, and be able to perform a long sequence of steps without missing anything.
Histologists are the people behind the scenes. They are the unsung heroes who work tirelessly with the pathologist to prepare, process and analyze specimens to determine the presence or absence of disease. They make an enormous impact on the lives of human and animals around the globe. They help solve crimes, develop new treatment modalities for disease, and assist in making everyday products like plant food more effective. They touch every aspect of the human, animal and plant life through the discoveries and tests they perform.
HLTs work in a laboratory. Laboratories are clean, indoors, cool, and organized. There is a plethora of machinery that occupies the space too. Noise levels can be elevated from the hum of machines to the conversations of co-workers. Space can be limited. HLTs can work in private or public sectors. They often work for hospitals, veterinary services, private research labs, and pharmaceutical labs. Laboratories may specialize in different areas. Some of the common areas are hospitals, crime labs, veterinary services and commercial labs associated with a variety of industries.
HLT salaries can vary considerably depending upon geographical location, private vs. public employer, level of education, and postgraduate certification. The average salary range is between $40,000 and $60,000 per year. Job growth averages about 10% per year.
The highest demand is in the private sector, in urban areas. Education and experience are some of the key factors to getting the jobs with the highest salaries. Most positions are benefitted with paid time off, health insurance and other similar benefits. Some HLTs prefer to work as independent contractors and give up the benefits in lieu of higher wages.