Each year, an average of 29 million units of blood components are transfused into patients in the US, according to the AABB (formerly the American Association of Blood Banks). This gift of life allows for surgeries and organ transplants, nurtures trauma victims and provides healing treatments for patients undergoing chemotherapy or suffering from cancer, sickle-cell disease or a form of thalassemia, a group of inherited blood diseases.
These transfusions are made possible by a relative handful of blood-bank technology specialists. With a background in medical laboratory technology and additional training in immunohematology, these experts perform the routine as well as the highly advanced tests needed to ensure that blood is both safe and compatible with the patient receiving it.
Like other clinical lab technologists and technicians, blood-bank technology specialists are currently in high demand. "There are only about 4,000 certified specialists in blood banking registered nationwide," estimates Marjorie Doty, MT (ASCP) SBB, manager of the Transfusion Medicine Academic Center at Florida Blood Services in St. Petersburg.
That number is expected to decrease in the coming decade as a generation of blood-bank professionals starts to retire. "The average age of our members is in their mid-50s," says Marc Pearce, division director of membership services for the AABB. "Many are looking to retire in the next 10 years, and we don't have the next generation coming up behind."
That's because enrollments are low in the few blood-bank technology programs still left. The number of programs for specialists in blood-bank (SBB) technology has dropped from about 60 in the '80s to a current low of about 15, according to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Blood-Bank Technology Credentials
Most SBB programs run approximately 12 months, although some that offer a master's degree take longer to complete. Generally, applicants must be certified medical technologists by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) and have a bachelor's degree. Applicants who aren't ASCP-certified in medical technology need a bachelor's degree with a major in a biological or physical science and work experience in a blood bank. After completing the program, graduates receive a post-baccalaureate certificate and are eligible to take the SBB exam.
The industry has been slow to introduce distance learning but is now catching up to attract more students, Pearce says. The Transfusion Medicine Academic Center at Florida Blood Services, the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center in Houston and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston all offer distance-learning programs.
Blood Centers and Beyond
Many blood-bank technology specialists work in hospital-based transfusion services, which collect blood from donors, test it for safety and verify compatibility with the receiving patient. Others work in donor centers, such as those run by the American Red Cross, which collects more than 50 percent of the nation's blood supply. These donor centers separate blood into components and distribute it to hospital transfusion services.
Those who choose research positions based in blood centers or major hospitals perform such functions as peripheral blood stem cell transfusions. Finally, some work for manufacturers of blood-banking equipment and supplies.
SBB salaries range from $45,000 to $66,000, according to the American Medical Association's Health Professions Career and Education Directory. Midlevel lab supervisors earn an average of $21.44 per hour, and directors of quality assurance average $35.72 per hour, according to a 2004 AABB survey of its member blood centers.
Autonomy and Responsibility
Blood banking attracts people who like science and enjoy figuring out puzzles, Doty says. "Laboratory professionals are very different from nurses, although they both help people in their own separate ways," she explains. "Lab people like the autonomy and don't really want patient contact."
Blood-bank work is demanding, with unpredictable hours and the heavy responsibility of knowing that just one mismatched unit of blood can cause a patient's death. Unlike nurses or physicians who may receive feedback from grateful patients, blood bankers typically receive little recognition for their hard work and skill.
But that's not important, declares Doty. "Here you know that what you've done has helped save a life or get someone through surgery successfully."