Phlebotomy Career Information
F ew people enjoy getting poked by needles or seeing their own blood. Sometimes, though, blood tests are necessary to provide valuable information to your health care providers about how your body is working. That's why skilled professionals—called phlebotomists—exist to do the job of collecting such samples. They specialize in drawing blood from patients while making them feel as comfortable as possible with the process. And they do it day after day, providing an essential healthcare service that contributes to the ability of doctors to diagnose and treat their patients.
What is Phlebotomy?
Doctors require good information in order to properly care for their patients. That's why laboratory testing of biological samples is so important. Without timely results from lab tests, many medical patients would go undiagnosed or untreated. But, in order to get those results, blood must often be drawn. That's where phlebotomy comes in. So, what is phlebotomy?
At its most basic level, phlebotomy is the process of puncturing a vein in order to extract blood or introduce an intravenous fluid. It might seem simple, but the process is serious and invasive. People who perform phlebotomy must follow very strict procedures in order to ensure the safety of patients and the quality of collected specimens.
By the way, you may have heard this process referred to as something different, prompting you to ask, "What is venipuncture?" Like so many other things in the English language, this process is known by more than one word. Although "phlebotomy" is the more common word, "venipuncture" is also sometimes used. By definition, they mean the same thing.
What is a Phlebotomist?
It takes a special kind of person to help other people feel comfortable when they may be anxious about having their blood drawn. Phlebotomy professionals possess an important set of skills that ensure they can perform their jobs with professionalism and compassion. So, what is a phlebotomist?
A phlebotomist is a trained healthcare worker who, as part of a medical laboratory team, primarily draws patient blood samples for testing or for transfusions, donations, or research.
Phlebotomists are also known as phlebotomy technicians. Less frequently, they are referred to as venipuncturists.
What Does a Phlebotomist Do?
Phlebotomy, by its definition, seems like a very straightforward process, but it usually involves a lot more than the average person might expect. In fact, the typical phlebotomist must possess a diverse set of skills to pull it all off. So, what does a phlebotomist do?
Their duties vary a little depending on where they work, but phlebotomists usually have responsibilities that can include:
- Assembling necessary equipment such as needles, vials, and tourniquets
- Explaining phlebotomy procedures to patients
- Helping patients to feel comfortable with the procedures
- Drawing patient blood samples using the correct tubes in the correct order
- Correctly labeling each blood sample
- Transporting blood samples to a medical laboratory for testing
- Collecting and transporting other lab specimens such as urine
- Entering patient data into a computerized records system
- Safely disposing of used needles
When drawing multiple blood samples from the same patient for different kinds of lab tests, phlebotomists must take care to avoid cross-contamination between different blood collection tubes. This is because each tube is color-coded for the type of test to be performed, and each one has different additives that can negatively affect lab testing if they accidentally wind up in the wrong tube. To prevent such accidents, a phlebotomist must use tubes in a very specific order while drawing a patient's blood.
Although using a needle in a patient's arm is the most common way of drawing blood samples, other methods (known as "microtechniques")—such as using finger sticks or heel sticks—can also be employed for drawing minute quantities of blood. Heel sticks are primarily used for collecting blood from infants.
Besides collecting blood from medical patients, many phlebotomists work for blood donation centers and draw the blood of donors so that it can be used for other people's transfusions or surgeries (after being tested to ensure that it is safe to use).
Where Can a Phlebotomist Work?
Phlebotomists can work in a variety of settings, including:
- Blood banks
- Plasma centers
- Private medical clinics
- Dialysis centers
- Doctors' offices
- Medical laboratories
After gaining plenty of experience, some phlebotomists choose to work for employers that provide mobile medical examinations on behalf of insurance companies. It is even possible for an experienced phlebotomist to create his or her own company and provide such mobile services on a contract basis.
How Much Does a Phlebotomist Make?
The typical phlebotomist salary can be tricky to figure out. In large part, this is because phlebotomy technicians are usually lumped into the same category as higher-paid medical laboratory technicians in national wage estimates. Plus, many phlebotomists earn hourly wages as opposed to annual salaries.
Although it can be difficult to find reliable information about the typical phlebotomy technician salary, good sources do exist for learning what kind of hourly wage rates you might expect.
For instance, according to the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), the overall median pay for phlebotomists in 2010 was $14.52 per hour. Broken down by type of work setting, the median pay looks like this: *
- Hospitals: $13.50 per hour
- Private clinics: $15.90 per hour
- Doctors' offices: $13.00 per hour
- Reference labs (where lab tests are performed): $20.16 per hour
Can You Tell Me How to Become a Phlebotomist?
Learning how to become a phlebotomy technician is fairly straightforward since, compared to other healthcare occupations, the amount of training that's required is relatively minimal.
Your best bet in preparing to become a phlebotomist is to explore the different phlebotomy training programs offered at schools near you. By seeking out a formal education, you can ensure that your knowledge and skills are up-to-par with industry standards, which can help you stand out to potential employers.
Some formal phlebotomy programs are accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).
Are There Any Phlebotomy Certification Requirements I Should Know About?
Unless you plan on working in California, there are currently no legally mandated phlebotomy certification requirements. (California requires every phlebotomy technician to be professionally certified and to possess state licensure.)
In all other states, professional certification is purely voluntary. You should know, however, that certification is not the same thing as licensure. A few states do require that phlebotomists register or obtain licensure through their state's department of health.
Professional certification can be valuable in helping you land a phlebotomy job or in helping you gain the respect of your healthcare peers. If you want to know how to become a certified phlebotomist in California (or voluntarily in any other state), then you need to know which certifying agencies are most commonly recognized. The state of California lists the following as approved certifying organizations:
- American Certifying Agency (ACA)
- American Medical Technologists (AMT)
- National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT)
- American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP)
- National Healthcareer Association (NHA)
Additional organizations, other than those listed above, also provide phlebotomy certification, but it's best to check with employers in your area to see if they recognize a particular certifying body before committing to anything.
Regardless of the certifying organization you choose, you will have to pass a comprehensive phlebotomy exam, which usually also means paying an exam fee. Exam content and fees vary from agency to agency. You may also have to prove that you've successfully completed a minimum amount of formal training from an accredited school.
The bottom line is this: In California, you definitely need professional certification to work as a phlebotomist. Everywhere else, it is best to check with prospective employers to see if it's necessary or desirable.
What Other Requirements for Phlebotomy Do I Need to Be Aware Of?
Although the training you need is relatively minimal, and professional certification is voluntary in most states, there are some other kinds of phlebotomy requirements that you should know about: the character traits needed to succeed in this field.
Successful phlebotomy technicians tend to possess the following attributes:
- A sense of compassion
- The ability to work well under pressure
- Strong attention to detail
- Manual dexterity
- Good interpersonal and communication skills
- The ability to handle a high level of responsibility
- A safety-conscious attitude
What are the Benefits of Being a Phlebotomist?
Here are some of the most common benefits of working as a phlebotomy technician:
- Relatively minimal training—Compared to most other occupations in the field of allied healthcare, phlebotomy requires only a small amount of training.
- Face-to-face interactions with different people—For anyone who likes people, phlebotomy can provide plenty of rewarding opportunities to meet and help a variety of people with different stories and personalities.
- Flexible and varied work schedules—Depending where they work, experienced phlebotomy technicians often have the ability to choose the shifts and schedules that best accommodate their lifestyles.
- A good starting point—Since many phlebotomists gain a strong familiarity with different areas of a hospital as well as with related lines of work, phlebotomy can provide a solid stepping-stone to other healthcare careers.
How Long is Phlebotomy Training?
Some phlebotomy courses only take a couple of months to complete, while others can take up to eight months. Overall, many phlebotomy programs tend to be at least 16 weeks long, often including up to eight weeks of clinical practice.
What is the Cost of Phlebotomy Training?
The cost of phlebotomy training varies significantly depending on the type of school and program you choose. So, what is the typical phlebotomy training cost?
Tuition for phlebotomy training ranges from approximately $1,200 to about $17,000. With such a wide range available, it's best to check out different schools and find the one that best matches your individual situation, preferences, and future goals.
What Can I Expect to Learn at a Phlebotomy School?
Phlebotomy technician programs don't all share the same curricula. However, regardless of the specific program you choose, you are likely to encounter subjects such as:
- Basic anatomy and physiology
- Medical terminology
- Medical ethics and legal issues
- Circulatory system anatomy and physiology
- Stress management
- Safety precautions
- Infection control
- Infectious diseases and biohazards
- Patient identification
- Phlebotomy preparation and site selection
- Phlebotomy equipment and tube additives
- Phlebotomy techniques
- Risk factors and complications of phlebotomy errors
- Corrective actions
- Proper disposal of needles and other medical waste
- Quality assurance
Do Phlebotomists Have Any Advancement Opportunities?
With experience (and sometimes further formal training), phlebotomists can have the opportunity to move into more advanced positions.
Some phlebotomy technicians eventually become supervisors. Others become mobile medical examiners, collecting blood and other lab samples on behalf of insurance companies.
What is the Phlebotomy Job Outlook?
Employment rates for medical and clinical laboratory technicians, including phlebotomists, is projected to experience a growth rate of about 15% by 2020. ** Most of that growth will likely be due to an aging population and the greater need for laboratory testing that comes with an increase in medical conditions requiring diagnosis.
After completing phlebotomy training, there are a few additional ways to help secure your first phlebotomy job. Keep the following points in mind:
- Volunteering your services at a hospital can sometimes provide a way to get noticed, prove your skills, and gain necessary experience.
- Applying to as many different hospitals, clinics, and doctors' offices as you can will increase your chances of success. It's also a good idea to apply at places where you'd like to work even if they are not currently hiring.
- When calling prospective employers, it's smart to try to speak with the laboratory manager directly and inquire about possible internship opportunities that can give you a chance to demonstrate your work habits.
- It's important to research the employers you apply with so that you know something about them in the event they call you for an interview.
- Additional training and certification in a complementary set of skills such as EKG technology can be a big incentive to potential employers.
How Do I Get Started?
If you're interested in becoming a phlebotomist, then start by checking out this list of phlebotomy training schools. You could soon be making a meaningful impact in the lives of medical patients while gaining experience in a field that you can feel good about.
* American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), website last accessed on December 4, 2012.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, website last accessed on June 12, 2013.
National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT), website last accessed on November 30, 2012.
American Medical Technologists (AMT), website last accessed on November 30, 2012.