If pathologists are the doctors whom patients never see, then histotechnologists are the technicians that most patients have never heard of.
"Because we're so busy inside of the lab, working and processing this stuff, we don't get to go out and market our profession like we should," said Sam Jones, supervisory medical technologist at the VA North Texas Health Care System in Dallas, who oversees several histotechnologists.
Before a pathologist can lower his eye to a microscope, someone has to slice and prepare the tissue sample being examined.
MEI-CHUN JAU/DMN Sam Jones oversees several histotechnologists at VA North Texas Health Care System. "We don't get to go out and market our profession like we should," he says.
That someone is a histotechnologist, also known as a histologic technician.
About 10,000 now practice in the United States, according to Kathy Dwyer, president of the Texas Society for Histotechnology (www.txsh.org). And more are needed.
"The median age of histotechnologists is in their late 40s to 50s," she said. "People are just not getting into the field like they used to."
According to the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, the vacancy rate for histotechs in the area is 13.5 percent, up from 7.5 percent in 2002.
The vacancy rate for registered nurses – which is considered to be at crisis levels – is 9 percent.
Histotechnologists don't just work in hospitals. Pharmaceutical companies, private clinics and labs, and even veterinarians employ many of them.
"We're definitely in need of good histotechs," Mr. Jones said.
Ms. Dwyer said that the core duties of the histotechnologist – assisting with tissue examination and preparing slides for the pathologist – haven't changed, but computers have taken over the more menial tasks.
"As far as staining the cells or cover-slipping the slides, you can automate that, which has been a really big improvement in the field of histology," she said.
Salaries have also risen somewhat over the years, and histotechs now make from $15 to $21 an hour, she said.
Industry experts hope that upcoming changes to the training requirements for histotechnologists will raise the profession's image and encourage more candidates to apply.
Currently, a high school degree or GED and on-the-job training are enough to become a histotechnologist. Starting Jan. 1, 2005, aspiring histotechs will have to either complete a histotechnician program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences or get an associate degree or equivalent training in biology and chemistry.
More information on educational requirements is available on the Web site for the National Society for Histotechnology at www.nsh.org/whoweare/histotechnology.htm.
"We have more junior colleges and some universities that are actually acknowledging that this is a profession that is going to stick out," Mr. Jones said. "We've been on the back burner for a while."
Ms. Dwyer said that Tarleton State University in Fort Worth will launch a histotechnology training program in September 2004 (www.tarleton.edu/~clinlab/), the first such program in Dallas-Fort Worth.
She said it's important to let young students know that while histotechnologists don't usually meet their patients, they do influence their treatment.
"It's very long and hard work, and it's patient care," Ms. Dwyer said. "You're there to help the pathologist make a diagnosis for a patient, and that's the most important thing."