A medical laboratory is the setting where samples (specimens) taken from the human body and its fluids are sorted, stored, and tested to determine certain factors of health or illness. Some test results are immediate and can help to inform emergency diagnoses and treatment. Some tests can take longer, and may involve creating a precise environment for microbial growth or performing a series of treatments to gain a result. A medical laboratory can be anything from a small point of care testing area in a general medical practice to a large hospital laboratory with a wide range of high tech machinery for performing many and varied tests. Some laboratory assessments are uncommon and may require the use of facilities outside a normal hospital lab and so sometimes specimens are sent away to a highly specialized external provider.
Medical specimen testing for disease or disorders of the body is also known as pathology testing. Laboratory pathology testing falls into a few broad categories:
Haematology: the study of the blood cells and components, including clotting factors and tests for anaemia.
Biochemistry: the study of clinical samples, mainly blood, to identify normal and abnormal chemicals which can indicate problems in many systems of the body.
Microbiology: the study of microbes; viruses and bacteria (germs) which can cause problems and infections in the body. Microbes are cultured (grown) from samples of body fluids like urine, blood, faeces and wound swabs. Microbiology helps determine the nature of the particular microbe affecting the body and can identify the best treatment, such as the antibiotic that each type of microbe is most sensitive to.
Cytology: the study of cells. This area of medical testing relates largely to the identification of the abnormal cells, especially in cancerous growths. Cytology specimens can be biopsies taken from body tissues or excised (cut out) tumours or suspicious lumps. One of the most common cytology tests performed is for regular cervical smear (pap) tests. Sometimes surgical pathology specimens are treated separately as they can include different tests and larger specimens, such as full amputations.
Some laboratories also perform tests on specimens relating to reproductive processes and genetic testing for disease risk. Medical laboratories perform essential tests on donated blood for transfusion, categorize and store this blood, and analyse blood tests of the recipient requiring transfusion to best match up the type of blood needed.
Specimens will be received in a reception area and sorted. Some tests will be especially urgent and these specimens will be sent immediately to the right area for the tests required.
Larger medical labs are usually divided into the areas mentioned above; each area has an array of specialist equipment and a team of specialized medical scientists and lab technicians to perform the tests. They also work with medical consultants to help to plan treatment based on the results gained from laboratory testing with up-to-date methods.
Some specimens need to be stored for a certain length of time, and medical laboratories often incorporate specimen storage facilities.