Tissues in the human body are made up of individual cells, which represent some of its smallest building blocks. Changes in the behavior of cells are one of the earliest indicators of a disease or medical condition, often long before the patient experiences any symptoms. Cytotechnologists are laboratory professionals who specialize in this method of early detection. Their job duties revolve around microscopic inspection of human cells.
Cytotechnologists can work with cells from anywhere in the body. The patient's doctor will arrange for a suitable cell sample, which varies depending on the type of screening being done. For example, the familiar Pap test requires just a few cells from the cervix. Other tests might use samples from the patient's hair, throat, muscle tissue, bones or blood. In the case of a cyst or tumor, the cells might come from a needle biopsy of the growth while it's intact and still in the body. Alternatively, doctors might remove a mass and then request a biopsy to determine if it's cancerous.
Samples generally require a degree of preparation before they can be evaluated. Fluids can simply be spread on a glass slide, but solid tissue samples must often be sliced very thinly on a device called a microtome before they can be mounted. Sometimes samples must be dried, or treated with a fixative or preservative. Usually they're treated with a stain to increase the visibility of the cells' internal structures. In smaller laboratories cytotechnologists might prepare a high percentage of their own slides. In larger laboratories other staff are often responsible for most slide preparation, though the cytotechnologist should know how to do it if necessary.
Cytotechnologists receive extensive training in the appearance and function of normal cells. When they view samples under their powerful microscopes, they're looking for any abnormalities or deviations from normalcy, however subtle. Identifying a precise abnormality or its cause is the pathologist's job, rather than the cytotechnologist's. The cytotechnologist's responsibility is just to note any oddities, then pass the slides along with those notes for the pathologist to review. The pathologist scrutinizes slides singled out by the cytotechnologist, and sends back a diagnosis to the patient's doctor. One exception to this rule is routine Pap tests. If the sample is normal, the cytotechnologist can approve it independently without the pathologist's oversight.
Like the other staff in a pathology laboratory, cytotechnologists share some nonclinical responsibilities as well. Cytotechnologists must handle and store samples according to strict guidelines, to preserve their integrity and respect their potential as a biohazard. They're also responsible for keeping the sample associated with the corresponding test records, so patients' results don't get mixed. Technologists usually clean and order supplies for their own work stations, and clean and sanitize their equipment after use.
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