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Press Start: Lead an Empowered Life as a Clinical Laboratorian

As Long as You Don’t Call my Instrument a Machine

Published February 22, 2014 3:15 PM by Glen McDaniel

I had witnessed this situation many times before, but I still paid attention. "It’s an instrument, not a machine, stupid,” the MLS yelled to the entire room  in general, and no one in particular, as she hung up the phone. angrily.  When questioned she explained that a physician had called wanting to know if the “troponin machine” was calibrated because he seemed to be getting high values on his ED patients this evening.


Again, I recalled how upset many laboratorians get at the equipment nomenclature. In this case she could have decided to rerun controls, explain the issue might be the patient population: patients presenting with chest pain in the ED, troponin requested on symptomatic patients to make a differential diagnosis . She might also have legitimately explained that of all the troponin tests done that shift only 2 had been elevated. But instead she took umbrage at the terminology  “machine.”


A name is certainly important. For example, I resent being called a tech, techinician, technologist or “the lab.” I recoil when laboratorians are mistaken for nurses, or I , as an older male, am presumed to be a doctor.  I do not like being considered a person who pushes buttons and if my “machine” is calibrated, all I have to do is read the number off the screen or a printout. But I do not care if that big hulking piece of metal  which I use to generate results is called Bob, Mary, an instrument or  a machine.


To a pilot, their airplane is a machine and instruments are parts of the machine that give information and help to fly the plane. To a surgeon, instruments are the tools of their trade (scalpel, retractors, clamps) while machines (ventilators, monitors) maintain patient function or provide vital information about the patient’s status. To others in healthcare, like respiratory therapists,  the terms machine and instrument are in fact interchangeable. The point is: machines can be very sophisticated contraptions that perform some very vital functions. No other profession I can think of gets as anal and defensive about this innocuous distinction.


As a profession our career path is very compressed, there is overlap of scopes of practice between professionals and paraprofessionals, other professions legally co-opt the right to perform laboratory testing. We do not have professional licensure in most states. Our scope of practice is not protected. The public we serve is not aware of our education, value or role in healthcare. Why don’t we expend our energy on changing these anomalies?


What do we gain professionally if our tools are addressed respectfully as “instruments”?  Certainly we have bigger fish to fry that getting all bent out of shape because someone outside the profession refers to one of our tools as a machine?




That is funny but is so true. I sometimes l slip and say machine and everyone pounces on me. No one has been able to explain the reason to me. It just comes off as if I am not a true Med Tech or MLS if I use the wrong term for the Cobas or DXH or something. Machine is like a code word for  a loser or  a traitor to the profession. I am not sure how that ever got started.

Jonas T., MTll February 23, 2014 9:25 AM
Washington DC

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