Have you ever wondered who performs the actual analysis of your blood test, COVID swab, urine, or other bodily fluid sample, once this has been taken? Medical scientists, or sometimes referred to as medical (or clinical) laboratory scientists, or biomedical scientists, are members of a critical and yet largely invisible allied health profession. Medical scientists perform medical laboratory tests on blood, other body fluids and tissues to assist clinicians in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease. For the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, the medical scientist profession has been crucial to tracking viral mutations, in addition to analysing unprecedented numbers of PCR tests.
What does a medical scientist do?
Medical science is a broad field that encompasses multiple different disciplines including Anatomical Pathology, Cytology, Immunology, Clinical Biochemistry, Microbiology, Blood Transfusion, Haematology, Virology and Genetics and Molecular pathology. In most countries, medical laboratory scientists can specialise in one of these disciplines and work in a larger laboratory. However, in a smaller laboratory they may perform work across all disciplines and may be referred to as a multidiscipline scientist.
Medical scientists work with blood, other body fluids and tissues that have been sent for analysis to help inform clinical diagnoses. They work with pathologists to prepare samples, interpret, and report the results to the doctor or other healthcare professional who has ordered the pathology test.
Another part of the medical scientist’s role is to set up and maintain laboratory equipment and ensure the equipment meets the relevant safety and quality standards. They may also conduct research and contribute to the development of new methods and equipment to conduct laboratory testing. Training and supervising other members of the laboratory team, such as laboratory technicians and assistants, may also be part of the medical scientist’s role.
Where do medical scientists work?
Given that medical decision-making relies significantly on the results of clinical laboratory tests, medical scientists work in every developed and developing country.
They work in a range of clinical and laboratory settings, including:
- Public and privately funded pathology services
- Hospital laboratories
- Community health clinics
- Specialty laboratories
- Pharmaceutical, medical and biotechnology companies
- Scientific research organisations
- Veterinary laboratories
- Research and development
Desirable character traits for medical scientists
Medical scientists need to be process-driven, understand and be committed to adhering to prescribed procedures to ensure they arrive at a conclusion that is reliable, trustworthy, and replicable. It goes without saying that medical scientists must prioritise accuracy and pay close attention to detail. Medical scientists often work autonomously, so they need to be self-sufficient and focused.
Medical scientists also need to develop sound practical skills in order to perform a range of analyses and operate different types of equipment.
Professional education and regulatory frameworks
The professional education standard for medical scientists appears to be consistent across the world and involves the completion of a bachelor’s degree in medical or clinical laboratory science. This takes three to five years to complete and includes specialised medical laboratory science subjects. In the final year students specialise in one or more of the medical laboratory science disciplines.
In Australia, there is the option for those with a relevant undergraduate science degree to complete a two-year postgraduate master’s degree.
In the USA, to become a certified medical laboratory scientist, one must complete a bachelor’s degree from an institution that has been accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science.
In New Zealand, medical laboratory science is regulated nationally via the Medical Sciences Council of New Zealand. In South Africa, medical laboratory science is regulated nationally via the Health Professions Council of South Africa.
In the UK, biomedical science is regulated nationally via the Health and Care Professions Council, and in Hong Kong, national regulation is under the remit of the Medical Laboratory Technologists Board. In Canada, medical science is self-regulated via the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science. Medical laboratory science is regulated in only 11 states in the United States, with growing calls for more states to implement licensure processes for the profession.
In Australia, medical scientists are not currently required to be registered but there is a voluntary national professional certification scheme. This is managed by the Australian Council for the Certification of the Medical Laboratory Scientific Workforce (CMLS). Medical laboratory scientists who participate in this certification scheme must take part in a continuing professional development (CPD) scheme of a professional organisation. The Australian Institute of Medical and Clinical Scientists (AIMS) is the peak professional body representing medical scientists working throughout Australia in all disciplines of laboratory medicine. AIMS is one of the founding associations of the certification scheme and runs a CPD scheme that can be utilised by scientists wanting to be certified.
There are concerning workforce shortages among medical scientists across the globe. High levels of job stress and burnout were evident even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the exponential demand on medical and clinical laboratory science services has only exacerbated these issues.
This profession has played a critical role during the COVID-19 pandemic, not only performing countless tests of swabs to identify viral infection, but also in analysing the evolving genetic features of the virus. This has been crucial to enable the identification of genetic mutations, enhance tracking of the virus, and inform public health responses to outbreaks. Medical scientists were required to consider more efficient (and yet still accurate and cost-effective) ways to process large numbers of samples during the earlier phases o the pandemic, when rapid antigen test kits were not available, and the test and trace approach was adopted by many developed countries across the world.
In some developing countries, available resources, quality standards and regulatory requirements guiding medical science are inadequate. There is clearly a need for significant support from developed countries to increase the standards of laboratory diagnostic systems and procedures, so that medical laboratory science is effective, and testing is accurate and reliable across the world.
Find out more about medical scientists
Here are some links to websites and resources for and about medical scientists:
- Australian Institute of Medical and Clinical Scientists
- The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science
- Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science
- New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science
- Medical Sciences Council of New Zealand
- The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science
- American Society for Clinical Pathology
- Malta Association of Biomedical Scientists
- Health Professions Council of South Africa – Medical Technology
- Medical Laboratory Technologists Board | Hong Kong
The A to Z of Allied Health is updated every fortnight. If you are a medical scientist with experiences to share, or would like to suggest future topics, please comment below.