One of the most common questions we hear is “What is a phlebotomist? What are the major duties in this line of work?”
Taking a blood sample is often an important step in diagnosing diseases, especially during the initial stages of patient consultation. Blood is drawn from patients by a qualified phlebotomist (also called a “venipuncturist”), and is studied and tested for health problems or early warnings of disease. Blood can also be drawn for life saving transfusions, either immediately or after being stored and transported to a hospital or blood bank.
Drawing blood from a patient entails making a small surgical perforation into a vein using a sterilized hypodermic needle, in order to draw blood from the patient. While this may seem simple, it requires training and skill to perform successfully.
Verifying the patient’s information (including blood type and allergies) is the first step. This is usually done by asking the patient to fill out a standard medical questionnaire prior to being treated.
Next, the patient is led to a clean and sanitary location and instructed to lay their arm out on a table or other flat surface, at which point the phlebotomist will apply a tourniquet and find an adequate vein to draw from. The patient will be asked to make a fist and hold it tight while the puncture site is sanitized using a sterile alcohol swab. After the needle is inserted, the patient will relax their arm and the tourniquet will be removed. When drawing blood, a phlebotomist will always wear gloves to prevent infection or transmission of any blood-borne diseases.
Once a blood sample has been taken, gauze and a band-aid are applied to the wound in order to seal it and expedite healing. It’s important for the phlebotomist to properly dispose of all needles and contaminated objects, and to use proper handling techniques with any collected blood samples. Finally, maintaining a positive “bedside manner” (i.e. the ability to comfort and reassure patients who are nervous or young) is a major asset in this line of work.
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As a phlebotomist, you might work in one of several different environments. Phlebotomists can be found in hospitals, medical or diagnostic labs, plasma donation centers, or even mobile blood banks. According to Payscale.com, “The typical work environment is an office setting with several draw rooms, a hospital, or long-term health care facility…Phlebotomists’ work hours are generally flexible during the day with the option to work weekends and/or holidays depending on location and the facility’s hours of operation.” They are usually supervised by a more senior medical professional, such as a clinical laboratory technologist.
As with any profession in the medical field, proper technique can mean the difference between safety and injury, both for the phlebotomist and his or her patient. Since a phlebotomist’s primary duty is to draw blood from a vein or skin puncture, an aspiring phlebotomist must be trained in the proper procedures for needle insertion and removal, handling of blood samples, and disposal of sharp or contaminated objects. A critical skill is knowing how to avoid contaminating samples, and what temperature to store it at (blood is extremely perishable). Other skills, such as a positive bedside manner and clear communication, are important as well. Click here for a list of the top 10 most important skills a phlebotomist should possess.
Classes are available at many campuses across the U.S. Depending on the school’s curriculum, these classes may cover the skills mentioned above. Additionally, many phlebotomists start their career as volunteers with an organization like the Red Cross, in order to get experience and to meet any certification requirements related to a minimum number of punctures or blood draws. Having extensive volunteer experience can help make it easier to obtain full-time, paid work as a professional phlebotomist.
Certification is available from several organizations, including the National Phlebotomy Association, the American Society for Clinical Pathology, and American Medical Technologists. Be sure to ask your prefered certification board about prerequisites, since each organization has its own requirements. These may include in-class instruction, hands-on training at a jobsite, or a combination of both. Additionally, students are usually required to demonstrate their completion of at least 100 successful vein and skin punctures.
Three U.S. states currently require all phlebotomists to obtain certification- California, Louisiana, and Nevada. Additionally, even if your home state doesn’t require certification, it can be advantageous for you to obtain it. According to the Houston Chronicle, “The ASCP’s salary survey showed that those who are certified earned approximately 10 percent higher wages on average. Certified phlebotomists might also have an advantage in seeking promotion to supervisory positions, which typically offer higher pay.”
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