The field of healthcare is renowned for its many niche areas of expertise. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that every day in a hospital or a laboratory is different. While no one day is identical for employees, the manner in which the day begins for a patient remains constant: a blood test.
Behind that needle lies an entire field of committed and highly specialized professionals called phlebotomists. Deborah Mincarelli, MT(ASCP), CSSGB, the administrative director of the Division of Laboratory Medicine for the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, shed light on this truly unique profession, and the crucial role it plays in healthcare. "Phlebotomy is the art of drawing blood. I think phlebotomy is the most important job in the laboratory. Often phlebotomists are not seen in this light, but they are the face of the laboratory. I don't think the general population understands this," she said.
To be a successful phlebotomist, one must be composed, diligent and erudite, explained Mincarelli. What makes this even more daunting is that, as a phlebotomist, there is no margin for mistakes. "There is no room for error in phlebotomy. If phlebotomists haven't performed their tests correctly, then the results of the test are not valid. From making sure they've identified the patient correctly, that they've taken the sample correctly, and there's no hemolysis of the specimen, all of those steps, all start with the phlebotomist."
The Bar is Set
Thought educational and licensure requirements vary by state, the bar is set high for phlebotomists purposefully, explained Mincarelli. Training for phlebotomy includes austere coursework in human anatomy and physiology, followed by both didactic and clinical training. "During a phlebotomist's clinical training, a student is instructed on how to do a proper venipuncture. Just as they would in a hospital setting, they must perform a stick without doing any kind of damage to any of the nerves, muscles or tendons, from where they are drawing blood on the patient. Taking blood is definitely an acquired skill that calls for a lot of practice," said Mincarelli.
Although recent technologic advances have begun to crack open the door to other medical professionals to drawing blood, phlebotomists still hold the key. In order to keep up with the ever increasing speed of healthcare, phlebotomists are going the extra mile to adapt. "One of the biggest things that has really evolved in healthcare is electronic health records. Phlebotomists are now using tablet-like hand-held devices to complete all of their patients' data entry into a computer and getting all of their labels Basically small computers that have wireless label printers that are used at the patient's bedside. With this technology, they can actually print the labels for the vials right there in the patient's room. Phlebotomists used to have manual orders on a piece of paper and they would have to match each label with each patient. Then, after going through the list, they would go ahead and write all of the patient's information on the tubes. Now, phlebotomists go into a room, scan the patient's wristband with their hand-held computer, and print out all the necessary information in front of the patient," said Mincarelli.
Without a doubt, the job of a phlebotomist can be taxing, however, many phlebotomists enjoy their work, satisfied in knowing that the few short minutes a phlebotomist spends with a patient, despite performing a task so many patients wholeheartedly dislike, could save a him or her a lifetime of suffering. "Knowing that you're a key element in saving someone's life is a huge reward for the job. You might be the only bright spot in that person's day," said Mincarelli. Suffice to say, as a phlebotomist, the cure begins with you.
Scott Hunt is a former ADVANCE intern.