How to Become a Medical Lab Assistant - Education & Certifications
Becoming a medical lab assistant is a great career choice for those looking for a science-based entry-level healthcare job that can expand into future opportunities. Medical assistants work in clinical patient-facing roles while medical lab assistants face patients in clinics and handle pipettes in laboratories.
Medical assistants and medical lab assistants have similar titles and slightly different responsibilities. While medical assistants typically have 1-2 years of education, experience, and professional certification, medical lab assistants have at least two years of educational experience and board certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) or American Medical Technologists.
In addition, medical assistants can pursue a variety of specialized certifications to work in chiropractor or obstetrics clinics, and medical lab assistants have more lab science-based certifications such as histotechnology (detecting tissue abnormalities) or phlebotomy (drawing blood).
In summary, while medical assistants collect and transport patient samples, medical lab assistants go a step further and transport, evaluate, record, and share patients’ test results. Furthermore, medical assistants are supervised by physicians while physicians and medical laboratory technologists can supervise medical lab assistants.
For simplicity, this guide refers to medical lab assistant careers using the title of clinical laboratory technicians from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This is a growing career field predicted to grow faster than the country’s average, adding 36,500 new positions in the coming decade—a figure representing 11 percent growth nationally.
Read on to learn more about becoming a medical lab assistant, including a step-by-step guide, educational programs, certifications, and state licensure requirements.
What is a Medical Lab Assistant?
As mentioned above, medical lab assistants overlap with patient-facing and clinical lab responsibilities. Therefore, job descriptions for medical lab assistants depend on training and educational background.
In general, medical assistant programs teach patient-facing skills and include minor laboratory responsibilities such as:
- Entering patient medical information into electronic systems
- Informing patients of confidentiality and HIPAA protocols
- Scheduling follow-up appointments
- Measuring and recording vital signs
- Handling blood, urine, or feces samples from patients
- Drawing blood from patients
By comparison, medical lab assistants have more laboratory-based training and experience in medical laboratory settings, similar to what the BLS calls clinical laboratory technicians. Responsibilities for medical lab assistants can include the patient-facing tasks above in addition to:
- Analyzing bodily fluids and tissue samples collected from patients
- Enter patient test result data into electronic medical records
- Discuss laboratory results with nurses and physicians
- Use specialized laboratory equipment
Training and certification in either or both of these areas can lead to an in-demand career. For example, the BLS (2021) showed that from 2020 to 2030, medical assistant careers would grow at a rate of 18 percent, while clinical laboratory technician careers would grow 11 percent in the same decade. These two rates are faster than the national average for all occupations, which is currently 8 percent (BLS 2021).
Steps to Become a Medical Lab Assistant
Step 1: Graduate from high school or earn a GED (four years)
High school students aspiring to become medical lab assistants are advised to take as many biology, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology courses and English or college-level writing courses such as Writing 121.
If internship opportunities are available for credit, this could be valuable to gain experience as a medical lab assistant and stand out on college applications.
Step 2: Earn a Diploma or Associate’s Degree (two years)
Most medical lab assistant positions require a postsecondary certificate or associate’s degree. Some states have specific education and training requirements for medical lab assistants to earn certification and legally work.
To be eligible for professional certification, aspiring medical lab assistants are strongly advised to graduate from a program accredited by one of the following organizations when possible:
- National Accreditation Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS)
- Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
Here are three exemplary schools offering accredited certificate, diploma, and associate’s degree programs in medical lab technology.
Beckfield College offers a medical assisting diploma on-campus and online. Students in this program learn skills to be fully functioning members of medical clinics, such as taking vital signs, reading laboratory results, collecting and processing specimens, and preparing medications and immunizations for clinical administration to patients.
Graduates from this program are eligible for entry-level jobs working in medical clinics, blood banks, hospitals, laboratories, and front offices in medical.
- Location: Florence, KY
- Duration: 12 to 15 months
- Accreditation: ABHES
- Tuition: $13,295 per year
Coastal Carolina Community College offers an associate’s degree in applied science in medical laboratory technology. This program teaches students skills such as specimen collection, laboratory testing, quality assurance, and recording and interpreting laboratory findings.
In addition, courses include basic anatomy and physiology, clinical chemistry, immunohematology, and special clinical microbiology. Upon completing this program, graduates are eligible to sit for the medical laboratory technician (MLT) exam offered by the ASCP.
- Location: Jacksonville, NC
- Duration: Two years
- Accreditation: NAACLS
- Tuition: $81 per credit (in-state); $273 per credit (out-of-state)
Delgado Community College offers a two-year medical lab technician degree that prepares students to assess bodily fluids for infectious diseases. This program features a combination of courses and in-person clinical experience.
To be eligible for this program, applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent, have completed college-level courses in biology, English, and math, and have a GPA of 2.0 or higher in all college courses. In addition, graduates from this program have a 100 percent Board of Certification exam pass rate and a 100 percent job placement rate after graduation.
- Location: New Orleans, LA
- Duration: Two years
- Accreditation: NACCLS
- Tuition: $170 per credit (in-state); $349 per credit (out-of-state)
Step 3: Pursue MLT(ASCP) Certification (timeline varies)
The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) offers the medical laboratory technologists MLT(ASCP) credential through one of four eligibility pathways:
- Route 1: An associate degree from a regional or nationally accredited college and successful completion of a NAACLS or ABHES accredited MLT program in the last five years
- Route 2: Valid CLA(ASCP) certification and an associate’s degree from a regional or nationally accredited college (to be discontinued effective January 1, 2023)
- Route 3: An associate’s degree from a regional or nationally accredited college and successful completion of a 50-week U.S. military medical laboratory training course
- Route 4: An associate’s degree from a regional or nationally accredited college and three years of full-time clinical experience
The ASCP offers an eligibility assistance tool for professionals pursuing certification. The application fee for this exam is $215.
Please note that certain states may require state-specific exams in addition to professional certification. The ASCP keeps a list of state licensure eligibility requirements for laboratory professionals.
MLT(ASCP) certification is valid for three years.
Step 4: Maintain Professional Certification (Ongoing)
The ASCP’s Board of Certification (BOC) requires credential holders to track their continuing education through the Credential Maintenance Program, or CMP. As of June 2022, professionals with this certification must earn 36 points of continuing education (CE).
CE courses in laboratory and patient safety and HIPAA are worth one point, and CE courses in blood banking, chemistry, hematology, and microbiology are worth two points.
Step 5: Pursue Additional Certifications with ASCP and AMT
The ASCP encourages lifelong learning and offers multiple certifications for medical lab assistants in specialized areas such as:
- Histotechnology (see more details below)
- Donor phlebotomy
American Medical Technologists (AMT) also offers certification for medical laboratory assistants. For a step-by-step guide on how to earn medical lab assistant certification, please see our guide to How to Become a Certified Medical Laboratory Assistant – AMT (CMLA).
Other Certifications for Medical Lab Assistants
American Medical Technology (AMT)
- Credential: Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT)
- Initial requirements: (1) Completion of a two-year accredited program in clinical laboratory science and six months of lab experience or; (2) completion of a 50-week US military laboratory training program or; (3) currently employed state-level credential holder in medical lab science (no exam required for this eligibility route)
- Renewal: (1) continuing education; (2) following the AMT Standards of Practice; and (3) pay an annual fee
For a detailed guide to the AMT (MLT) certification, please see our American Medical Technologists (AMT) MLT Certification Testing & Requirements page.
American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP)
- Credential: Histotechnician HT(ASCP)
- Initial requirements: (1) Successful completion of a NAACLS-accredited histotechnician program in the past five years or; (2) completion of 60 semester hours or an associate’s degree in biology or chemistry and one year of full-time clinical experience in histopathology or; (3) completion of 60 semester hours or an associate’s degree in biology or chemistry and completion of a 50-week US military laboratory training program
- Renewal: (1) continuing education; (2) pay a fee (every three years)
All HT(ASCP) credential seekers must have experience in the following areas within the past five years:
- Laboratory Operations
As previously mentioned, many more specialized certifications are available for currently certified medical lab assistants. Please see our Medical Technology Schools Certification Guides for a comprehensive list.
State Licensure for Medical Lab Assistants
According to the BLS, most employers prefer to hire certified clinical laboratory technicians even if certification is not required at the state level to work legally.
As of March 2022, eight states and one territory have approved ASCP certification for state licensure: Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico. Two states, California and New York accept ASCP certification under specific conditions.
For example, Tennessee approves the MLT(ASCP) credential for state licensure. By comparison, New York allows professionals three options: to be state-licensed only, to earn a bundle of ASCP certifications and state licensure, or to show MLT(ASCP) credentials earned after September 1, 2001.
Having professional MLT(ASCP) certification or American Medical Technology (AMT) certification is recommended for all professionals regardless of specific state requirements. Being credentialed demonstrates one’s commitment to the profession, offers medical lab assistants more access to a broader range of jobs and possibly commands higher salaries.