Last year, in this country alone, more than 15 million units of whole blood and red cells were collected by blood centers and hospitals. That’s nearly 900,000 gallons of life’s red sauce! Based on data supplied by the National Blood Data Resource Center, approximately five million patients nationwide will receive transfusions of whole blood and red cells this year.

Since whole blood can be processed into other components, such as platelets, plasma and cryoprecipitate, the total number of units of all these components transfused in the U.S. in 2001 (the most recent data available) was a staggering 29 million!

If you can get past any squeamishness of the sight of blood and can put up with the inevitable Dracula jokes from your friends’ tired attempts at being funny, a career in blood bank technology can be personally and financially rewarding. In addition, as is the case with many other allied health careers, employment demand for blood bank technologists will continue to grow. A Bureau of Labor Statistics projection indicates that the employment of clinical laboratory technologists and scientists (which include blood bank technologists) will increase by 10-20% through 2008.

Specialists in blood banking (SBB) possess a bachelor’s degree (or higher), undergo additional training and must pass a certification exam (more specific details appear later in this article). Most entry-level salaries average between $32,000-$42,000; subject to the usual variations for past medical experience, geographic location and job market conditions. With ongoing training and additional supervisory, teaching, research and/or administrative responsibilities, the salaries can go much higher.

What You’ll Do

The work environment is primarily in hospitals, community blood banks, transfusion centers, private hospital blood banks, university-affiliated blood banks and laboratories. Specialists may have some weekend and night duty, including emergency calls.

SBBs are required to possess a superior level of technical proficiency. They perform both routine and specialized tests in blood bank and blood collection centers. Their duties may include 1) identifying blood types and antibodies; 2) screening for transfusion-transmitted viruses; 3) investigating adverse responses to transfusion; 4) supervising the collection, separation, delivery and storage of blood components; and 5) supporting physicians and nurses in blood transfusion therapy. They use problem solving-skills and technical expertise in such areas as:

  • Testing for blood group antigens, compatibility and antibody identification.
  • Investigating abnormalities such as hemolytic diseases of the newborn, hemolytic anemias and adverse responses to transfusion.
  • Supporting physicians in transfusion therapy for patients with diseases affecting blood clotting or candidates for organ transplant.
  • Performing blood collection and processing, including selecting donors, drawing and typing blood and performing pretransfusion tests to ensure the safety of the patient.
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In addition, many specialists are also busy supervising, managing and/or teaching as part of their daily responsibilities.

Certified SBBs are qualified to fill many roles within blood banking and transfusion medicine, and are not limited to lab work. SBBs can perform regulatory, technical and procedural tasks; serve as research advisors in transfusion medicine; perform and direct administrative functions; troubleshoot and perform corrective action to prevent and document problems; design and present educational programs; provide technical and scientific training in transfusion medicine; conduct research in transfusion medicine; and serve as technical experts and consultants for blood centers and transfusion services.

Tell Me About It

Brenda C. Barnes, MT (ASCP) SBB, blood bank supervisor, Great Plains Regional Medical Center, North Platte, Neb., confirms that blood banking is an exciting profession. “There are so many different directions a career in blood banking can go,” says Barnes. “If a person is interested in working with blood donors, working in a blood donor center is an option. Blood donor centers can offer a chance to help with collection of blood and components, processing blood or components, and/or testing of components to ensure the safest blood supply possible.

“If a person were interested in working with patients, a hospital or reference lab setting would be a good choice,” continues Barnes. “A hospital setting offers the opportunity to perform testing on patients that need blood or blood components. Testing for these patients can range from routine workups to complex antibody problems, so no two days are ever the same. Working in a reference lab setting involves dealing daily with difficult patient workups, which can often be very complex.”

The SBB may also teach young physicians or medical technology students as a faculty member at universities or teaching hospitals. SBBs may serve as education coordinators of medical technology programs and specialists in blood bank technology programs. Many SBBs choose to concentrate on medical research in universities, government-related facilities or industry-related facilities. Other employment options open to SBBs are reference consultation laboratories; the head or staff member of a frozen blood department; a human leukocyte antigens specialist, testing white cells for transfusions and organ transplants; or the technologist for a pheresis program, a relatively new technique of drawing blood from a donor, extracting the needed component (white cells, plasma or platelets) and returning the remainder of the blood to the donor.

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Shanasey Weber, MT, is on educational leave from St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., attending the SBB program at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Weber chose medical technology due to the fact that there is usually a specific job waiting for you even before you graduate.

“The market is in such need that you can find a job practically anywhere,” says Weber. “If your spouse’s career requires the family to relocate it is very easy to move from place to place and still be guaranteed employment.”

Weber says there is also a need in the area of blood bank technology to combine such training with computer programming/database skills and/or web design. “I see overlap in these areas to improve the software utilized in blood banking,” says Weber.

Jason Hunn, MT (ASCP), blood bank supervisor, Arkansas Methodist Center, Paragould, Ark., says, “Blood banking is a great profession. It’s a field of allied health that challenges you every day you go to work. I recommend that students have a strong background in immunology, as this is the foundation of transfusion medicine. The blood bank program is 12 months but since you are looking at a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and some blood banking experience, it is about seven years from the start of a person’s college degree to becoming certified as a specialist in blood banking.”

Barnes shares that “there are also various opportunities for people interested in management positions. These can range from supervising a transfusion service or donor testing lab to becoming a quality assurance specialist who is responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations to ensure work within a testing lab is compliant with all state and federal laws.”

What’ll It Take?

In 1954, the American Society of Clinical Pathologists’ Board of Registry administered the first examination for blood bank technologists. Technologists working in blood banking for at least five years were eligible to take the examination.

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After 1960, individuals could attend a 12-month educational program at an accredited school in lieu of the five years of experience. Levels of competency were established, and the scope of knowledge pertinent to the field was prescribed to ensure that the institutions would maintain acceptable standards of practice to include all phases of blood bank technology, laboratory management and transfusion services.

The American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) in cooperation with the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) has been accrediting SBB programs since 1962. Upon successful completion of an accredited SBB program, students may apply to take the Board of Registry SBB Certification Examination to become certified as specialists in blood banking technology. Most SBB programs are conducted in hospitals or community blood centers or universities, and consist of didactic experience covering all theoretical concepts of blood bank immunohematology combined with practical work.

Applicants must be certified in medical technology by the Board of Registry and possess a baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited college or university. If applicants are not certified in medical technology by the Board of Registry, they must possess both a baccalaureate degree from an accredited college or university with a major in any of the biological or physical sciences and have work experience in a blood bank.

Paths to Success

According to the AABB, there are four paths to obtain the SBB certification.

In order to become an SBB, a bachelor’s degree with a major in any biological science, chemistry, physical science or mathematics is required, followed by medical technology training and then passing a certification examination from the Board of Registry. Most post-baccalaureate educational programs are 12 months in length. Subjects included in the training are genetics, immunology, blood groups, collection and storage of blood components, donor processing, immune mechanisms, component therapy, transfusion of the newborn, complications of transfusions, general administration, personnel administration and education. At this time, there are 13 SBB programs in the U.S. that are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

Medical Technologists who have been out of school for some time can achieve SBB certification by passing the exam, provided they meet the following criteria: medical technology certification; bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college/university, including 16 semester hours of biological science, 16 semester hours of chemistry and one semester of mathematics; and three years of full-time clinical laboratory experience in blood banking within the last 10 years.

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Individuals who have completed graduate degrees also may be eligible to sit for the specialist in blood banking certification exam provided they meet they following criteria: master’s or doctorate degree in chemistry, biology, immunology, immunohematology, microbiology, allied health, clinical laboratory sciences or appropriately related field from an accredited college/university; three years of full-time clinical laboratory experience in blood banking within the last 10 years. In both paths 2 and 3, the three years’ experience must have been acquired post-bachelor’s degree and have been under the supervision of an American Board of Pathology certified pathologist or an appropriately board-certified medical scientist.

Graduates of doctoral programs in chemistry, biology, immunology, immunohematology, microbiology, allied health, clinical laboratory sciences or an appropriately related field from an accredited college/university and those who have completed two years’ of a postdoctoral fellowship in blood banking within the last 10 years also are eligible to take the certification exam.

Opportunity Knocks

No career field can claim to be completely immune to racial or sexual discrimination, but medical technology (a path to becoming an SBB) is a profession in which gender and ethnicity have been proven to have little or no influence over one’s career. The American Society for Clinical Pathology conducted a 10-year-long study of newly certified medical technologists that proved that that the tasks mix of medical technologists was the same regardless of gender, ethnicity, job title, facility location or degree. The study concluded: “Medical technology is an egalitarian profession. Gender and ethnicity do not influence task responsibilities at entry level or over time.” This indicates that the way to the top is by pure technical ability.

The profession is booming and has plenty of room for growth. Blood bank supervisor, Jason Hunn, says, “The field of blood bank technology is for you if you have good investigative skills and a natural curiosity for science.”

“The most common description for blood bankers is perfectionist,” adds Brenda Barnes, another blood bank supervisor. “Blood banking is about more than just working up antibodies, but this one part of the job is what gets the most attention. Blood banking is an area that does not allow for mistakes, but it is also not a perfect science.

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“It is also one of the last areas of the lab to become automated and is much more hands-on. A successful blood banker has good critical thinking skills and is a good problem solver. Someone that likes to solve puzzles or figure out riddles would fit in well. Multi-tasking ability is a must, as well as the ability to deal with a certain amount of stress. But the best part is at the end of a day; you know you have accomplished something. Knowing you have provided a patient with the safest component possible, whether a routine workup or the most complex antibody, is an excellent feeling of accomplishment.”

Addressing the Shortage of Medical Technologists

In August 2002 the president of the American Society of Clinical Pathologists (ASCP) contacted colleges and universities to tell them of the critical need to train the next generation of medical laboratory personnel. The need for qualified medical technologists is in critically short supply. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 9,000 new laboratory practitioners will be needed each year, yet only 4,500 are entering the workforce annually. The area of medical technology, which is one way to the path of a specialist in blood banking technology, has also been hit with the potential closure of some college programs. Unfortunately, a number of clinical training sites have discontinued educating laboratory personnel says Ann Graham, ASCP 2002 president. “This may be giving a wrong impression about the profession,” says Graham.

In addition to this plea for more assistance, on February 5, 2003, U.S. Representatives John Shimkus (R-IL) and Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) introduced the Medical Laboratory Personnel Shortage Act of 2003 to address the serious shortage of medical laboratory personnel in the United States . Representatives Shimkus, Jackson and bill co-sponsor Representative Michael Bilirakis (R-FL) worked with ASCP in finding solutions to attract professionals into the laboratory field.

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