What is a Cytotechnologist and What Do They Do?

Under the Microscope

Female doctor using microscope
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Cytotechnologists work in a hospital lab, or commercial lab, analyzing slides of human cells under a microscope. The cells may come from a variety of areas of the human anatomy, including skin, reproductive tract, digestive tract, or any area that sheds cells.

Cytotechnologists prepare the slides and examine them under the microscope, looking for abnormalities such as cancerous cells, pre-cancerous cells, or infectious disease cells (bacteria, viruses, etc.) Cytotechnologists often play a crucial role in helping patients to recover from illness by identifying a disease while it is still at a treatable stage.

The cytotechnologist then reports his or her findings to a pathologist (physician) who then gives the final diagnosis to report to the treating physician specialist.

Cell specimens are obtained from various body sites, such as the female reproductive tract, the lung, etc., and then placed on slides using special techniques. Cytotechnologists examine the slides microscopically and mark cellular changes that indicate disease.

Using the findings of cytotechnologists, pathologists can diagnose and treat disease -- in many cases, long before it could be detected otherwise. For instance, in recent years, fine needles are being used to aspirate lesions, even those that are deeply seated in the body. This has greatly enhanced the ability to find and diagnose tumors located in previously inaccessible sites.

As new screening and identification techniques for cancer are developed, cytotechnologists will continue to play an invaluable role in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

Where Cytotechnologists Work

Most cytotechnologists work in hospitals or commercial laboratories. With experience, they also may work in private industry or in supervisory, research and teaching positions. Cytotechnologists may work independently (when evaluating and reporting on normal cells) or in close collaboration with a pathologist (when examining cells for indications of disease).

Compensation

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), the average pay for cytotechnologists is about $30 per hour, which equates to about $60,000 annually for a full-time schedule (40-hour workweek).

Training

The cytotechnology educational track is about one year long after prerequisite coursework which is about two years of college. This can vary depending on the course load, and program, but plan on a minimum of three years up to five years after high school graduation. Candidates must have a bachelor's degree to qualify for the national certification exam in cytotechnology.

In October 2013, the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) approved the Standards and Guidelines for the Accreditation of Educational Programs in Cytotechnology, which include the Curriculum in Cytotechnology for Entry-level Competencies (ELC) proposed by the Cytotechnology Programs Review Committee (CPRC). The new ELC put the curriculum on a modern footing to cover evolving areas of molecular medicine and digital pathology.

Upon completion of a cytotechnology program accredited by the CAAHEP, in collaboration with the CPRC, students are eligible to sit for a national certification examination given by the American Society for Clinical Pathology’s  Board of Certification (ASCP-BOC).

Successful completion of this examination indicates attainment of entry-level proficiency in the field, and individuals are then recognized as CT(ASCP) – certified cytotechnologists. Additional certifications -- specialist in cytotechnology (SCT) and molecular biology (MB) -- can be obtained.

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