Cytotechnologists are allied health professionals who specialize in evaluating patients’ cell samples through a microscope to detect precancerous or cancerous cells, viral and bacterial infections, and other abnormal conditions. As highly trained clinical laboratory specialists, they work in close collaboration with pathologists to provide definitive diagnoses in a timely and cost-effective manner. Cytotechnologists play a vital role in helping save patients’ lives by providing data that allows clinicians to administer appropriate treatments quickly.
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What does a cytotechnologist do?
Cytotechnologists are best known for being solely responsible for interpreting Pap smears, but they can prepare and evaluate samples from all sites on the body. They may provide preliminary interpretations of specimens from the bladder, breast, central nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, liver, lung, lymph nodes, salivary glands, and thyroid, among others. Cytotechnologists use a variety of techniques to detect and interpret normal and abnormal cells, which may include microscopic cytomorphology, immunocytochemistry, special stains, and molecular techniques, among others. They may be involved in all pre-analytic, analytic, and post-analytic phases of testing, so specific duties may include:
Attending fine needle aspirations
Assisting with collection and preparation of various cell specimens
Preparing stains and other testing reagents
Selecting proper staining techniques for specimens/diseases in the differential diagnosis
Triaging patient specimens for ancillary testing
Using high-powered microscopes and other lab equipment to examine specimens
Examining slides for abnormalities like precancerous lesions and bacterial infections
Noting any cellular changes indicative of the potential presence of disease or infection
Reporting patient results using established information systems
Collaborating with pathologists and other medical professionals
Preventing specimen contamination by consistently using appropriate lab techniques
Operating and maintaining laboratory equipment
Assisting in quality assurance activities
Where do cytotechnologists work?
Cytotechnologists work in laboratories, often in hospitals and clinics to help pathologists diagnose diseases like cancer. These can include public/private, research, and teaching hospitals, and specialty clinics, especially those that process Pap smears like OB/GYN clinics. They may also conduct research while working in private medical laboratories or research facilities and government and academic settings. Depending on their role, cytotechnologists may work independently or in close collaboration with pathologists.
What skills make a good cytotechnologist?
Good cytotechnologists are naturally inquisitive and excel at the methodical and analytical nature of their job duties. They’re highly proficient at doing meticulous microscopic work and operating specialized equipment to analyze specimens. Cytotechnologists are at ease working in sterile laboratory environments and handling biological materials that could contain infectious agents.
Successful cytotechnologists are also comfortable making decisions and assuming a high degree of responsibility. They’re extremely detail-oriented with excellent visual acuity to thoroughly examine slides and catch even the smallest deviations. Cytotechnologists possess strong communication skills to effectively draft detailed reports on their findings and share test results with other medical professionals. Excellent analytical, critical thinking, complex problem solving, and time management skills are other highly desirable traits of skilled cytotechnologists.
How to become a Travel Cytotechnologist
The first step towards a career as a cytotechnologist is earning a bachelor’s degree in cytotechnology, biology, or the life sciences. Certification and licensure may also be required.
To become a certified cytotechnologist, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification (BOC) requires a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university and completion of a cytotechnology program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) to sit for the certification exam. Once certified, completion of the ASCP’s Credential Maintenance Program every three years is required to maintain valid certification.
Although not all employers require certification, it’s a smart career move and some states may require it. Several states require licensure of cytotechnologists and others have previously considered creating licensing requirements. A few states require certification and licensure, but exact laws vary by state so check with the appropriate board to learn current requirements. Travel positions often require one-plus years of experience in cytotechnology.