What does a histology technician do?
Histology technicians (HTs), also known as histologic technicians or histotechnologists, are specialized medical lab workers. They play a crucial role in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases by turning tissue samples into microscope slides.
Histology is the study of microscopic structures of tissues. Once a tissue sample is taken from a patient, histology technicians are the people responsible for taking the sample and creating those microscopic structures. After the samples are prepared, a pathologist will examine the slides for diagnostic or research purposes.
The identification and understanding of disease processes, including cancer, would not be possible without the skills and contributions of these highly trained allied health professionals.
Scope of practice
Histology technicians work with pathologists, pathologist assistants, residents, fellows, lab assistants, and lab managers. Technicians operate precision equipment and work with a variety of dyes and chemicals to make tissue abnormalities visible with a microscope. Pathologists use those slides for research or to make a diagnosis.
Common roles and responsibilities of a histology technician include:
- Preparing thin slices of human, animal, or plant tissue on slides for analysis by:
- Examining, fixing, and processing the tissue for proper sample preservation.
- Surrounding the tissue with paraffin wax in a process called embedding.
- Cutting a tissue sample with a microtome or cryostat.
- Mounting the tissue sample on a slide.
- Staining or dying the sample to emphasize abnormalities.
- Recognizing factors that affect procedures and quality results, and taking appropriate action when corrections are necessary.
- Performing preventative and corrective maintenance of equipment and instruments.
- As needed, management of supplies and laboratory quality-control procedures.
Histology technicians (HT) vs. histotechnologists (HTL)
A histology technician and a histotechnologist generally perform very similar tasks in their day-to-day operations. The main difference is that a histotechnologist has more advanced education and training to give them the qualifications necessary to obtain the HTL certification. A histotechnologist can also usually perform more complex techniques and go on to become a supervisor, advance into various leadership roles, or obtain a teaching position.
Histology technicians may specialize in areas such as muscle or kidney biopsies, immunohistochemistry staining, electron microscopy, Mohs surgery, and frozen sectioning.
Technicians typically work early hours in clinical pathology or private laboratories so slides can be ready for the pathologists when they begin their day. Some technicians may work in research, veterinary, pharmaceutical, and forensic laboratories. Advancement is also possible into areas such as education, test development, quality assurance, and management.
Becoming a histology technician
Histology technicians need to have strong fine motor skills and be incredibly detail oriented. Knowledge of biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and medical terminology is essential for success in this role.
Higher education requirements
After completing high school (or the equivalent), most go on to complete additional education and training. The typical pathway to become a histology technician includes:
- Obtaining an associate or bachelor degree
- Completing an accredited histology technician certificate program
Some degree programs include a histology clinical rotation in a medical facility that allows you to complete your education and certificate program as one program.
Most histology technicians become certified through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) and practices under the credentials of HT(ASCP) or HTL(ASCP). Licensure is also required in some states.
Career opportunities and outlook
The median annual salary for a histology technician is about $57,800, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Job openings for medical and clinical lab technicians, including histology technicians, are expected to increase faster than average according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With an aging population, there is a greater need to diagnose medical conditions through lab procedures. There is also an increased need for prenatal testing for genetic conditions. Medical laboratory technologists and technicians, including histology technicians, will be in demand to operate the equipment needed for diagnosis and treatment.
With additional training and experience, a histology technician can move into education, test development, or quality assurance. Some may become histotechnologists and oversee the work of others in a lab.
By the numbers
Histology technician programs at Mayo Clinic
Mayo Clinic offers a nine-month Histology Technician Program in Arizona, Florida, and Minnesota.