What’s in your blood tells doctors a lot about your health. Tests are done to screen for illness and health concerns. Once done only in hospitals, phlebotomy is now offered in doctor’s offices for the patient’s convenience. But who performs the procedure? In a vocational school medical assistant program, you learn how to draw blood.
What Does a Medical Assistant Do?
Medical assistants perform a broad range of clinical and administrative duties in an office setting, in addition to phlebotomy. Their responsibilities include:
Triaging Phone Calls
When patients call their doctor about troubling symptoms, a medical assistant ensures prompt care by reviewing their concerns and directing inquires to the most appropriate provider.
Medical assistants escort patients to exam rooms, updating their health records and preparing them to see the doctor. They also perform standardized screenings for symptoms of depression or personal care needs.
Taking Vital Signs
Changes in a patient’s temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, respirations and peripheral oxygen saturation can indicate illness. A medical assistant takes readings before each visit, saving the doctor time.
Assisting with Surgical Procedures
Doctors performing in-office surgical procedures need an assistant to pass instruments and monitor patients. A medical assistant can also assist with aftercare duties, such as applying dressings and removing stitches.
Medical settings can harbor dangerous germs. Medical assistants protect patients and co-workers by sanitizing shared equipment and sterilizing instruments.
Medical assistants keep exam room cupboards stocked with the equipment doctors need. They also help manage inventory and order supplies when needed.
Helping with Clerical Work
Medical assistants are sought after for their unique blend of clinical and clerical skills. In healthcare settings, office assistants handle most of the paperwork, but only medical assistants have the clinical training necessary to perform certain tasks. Students in vocational school programs learn medical billing and coding, so that they can help with administrative functions when they overlap with their jobs.
Medical assistants can’t give medical advice, but as the doctor’s liaison, they can reinforce their recommendations, clarify instructions, deliver lab results and offer general information about health topics from home safety to flu shots. As the patient’s first point of contact, they’re a go-to source for clinical information.
A medical assistant can perform tests, such as EKGs, urinalysis, throat cultures and breathing tests, for example.
Drawing blood, or phlebotomy, is among a medical assistant’s most valuable skills. Let’s take a closer look at the process.
What Is Phlebotomy?
Phlebotomy is the act of drawing blood samples from a vein with a needle. It’s a technically demanding task but easy to learn with the right training.
Why Is Blood Drawn?
Analyzing blood helps doctors to diagnose and illness, among other things, so learning phlebotomy is a very important skill for a medical assistant to have.
Blood tests measure the components in blood. Levels that are too high or low based on a normal range are indicative of medical conditions, including:
- High cholesterol
- Heart failure
- Kidney disease
- Clotting defects
- Nutritional deficiencies
Some medications have a narrow therapeutic range, meaning that too little doesn’t help and too much can be toxic. Testing helps monitor levels of therapeutic drugs, such as blood thinners, antibiotics and seizure medications.
Estimate Risk Factors
Levels of normal components in blood, from the number of cells to the by-products of metabolism, are important indicators of health. Without being abnormal, high or low levels of certain substances may increase or decrease a patient’s risk of future disease, allowing for early treatment. A rising blood glucose, for example, may warrant dietary advice and more frequent screening for diabetes.
There is equipment that a medical assistant will learn to use during a vocational program. The tools of the trade for phlebotomists include:
Phlebotomists protect themselves from blood-borne illness with personal protective equipment, such as disposable gloves. Since what a patient could transmit is unknown, PPE is used for every draw. Needles are discarded in portable, puncture-proof biohazard containers to avoid needle stick injuries. A special lid facilitates touch-free disposal.
Phlebotomy is a clean procedure. Sterility isn’t required but cleansing the patient’s skin with an alcohol pad before a draw reduces bacteria counts and helps prevent infections. Alternative disinfectants, such as betadine or chlorhexidine, are used for select tests.
Needles come in many lengths and diameters. Longer, larger needles are ideal for most adults while smaller, shorter lengths are more appropriate for children and seniors. Large-diameter needles exert pressure on small or weak veins and can cause them to roll or collapse.
Blood was once drawn with a needle and syringe. But today, vacuum tubes take the hassle out of phlebotomy. Collection tubes are preloaded with the additives necessary for specific tests, so mixing is no longer required. Color-coded, they’re easy to select.
Applying a tourniquet 3-5 inches above the venipuncture site plumps up veins by sequestered blood in the limb below. Veins are easier to see and more resistant to needle pressure. Apply it to the upper arm for a draw from the antecubital vein or above the wrist to draw from the top of the hand.
Drops of blood can continue to seep from a venipuncture site even after the needle is withdrawn. Pressing gauze or a cotton ball against the wound stops the bleeding and minimizes bruising. Applying a small adhesive bandage will protect the patient’s clothing.
The Phlebotomy Process
Medical assistants manage the phlebotomy process from start to finish. Steps include:
Reviewing the Order
Phlebotomy is performed only with a physician’s order. Doctors specify which tests they want, helping to determine the size, number and type of collection tubes required. Requisitions also include notes about allergies to disinfectants. Scanning the requisition in advance ensures the patient’s safety and helps the phlebotomist gather the right equipment.
Screening the Patient
Before drawing blood, medical assistants should:
- Verify the patient’s identity
- Ask if they complied with restrictions as some tests require fasting
- Screen patients for a history of problems with previous blood draws, such as fainting
- Explain the procedure and obtain consent to draw
- Position the patient safely
Consent to draw blood from minors should be obtained from a parent or guardian.
Perform the Venipuncture
Once orders are verified, the patient screened and supplies gathered, it’s safe to perform the draw. The process takes under a minute:
- Wash your hands and don disposable gloves.
- Disinfect the patient’s skin.
- Apply a tourniquet
- Brace the vein with your thumb and forefinger and insert the needle in a single, smooth motion.
- Advance the collection tube.
- Release the tourniquet when blood begins flowing into the tube.
- Withdraw the needle and apply firm pressure to the site.
- Dispose of the needle immediately.
- Cover the wound with a small adhesive bandage when the bleeding has stopped.
- Remove your gloves and label the specimen tubes. Accuracy is critical.
- Brief the patient on home care if they experience bruising and answer any questions before they leave.
It’s helpful to let clients know when to expect results.
Some blood tests are performed on whole blood. Others are done on serum or plasma, the liquid portion of blood. Some samples must be stored at room temperate while others are frozen and shipped on ice. Proper processing is the key to accurate results. You’ll find the requirements for each test in the lab’s test catalog.
How Do Medical Assistants Learn Phlebotomy?
Phlebotomy is part of vocational schools’ medical assisting curriculum. Students learn theory in the classroom, practicing on models and peers. You’ll graduate with the technical and soft skills you need to get started, and your technique will improve with experience.
Where Do Medical Assistants Draw Blood?
Medical assistants can draw blood in any healthcare setting, but since most work in doctor’s offices, they perform phlebotomy mostly in private practices. Some, however, work in clinics or for organizations that collect blood donations.
Phlebotomy Skills for Medical Assistants
Medical assistants have many skills that are learned during the vocational program. However, the best medical assistants that perform phlebotomy are:
Many adults are afraid of needles, and some even suffer from extreme fear called trypanophobia. Rates are higher in children and teens. For them, phlebotomy isn’t routine. As a medical assistant, the ability to put yourself in their shoes and address the anxiety they feel is essential for success.
Drawing blood requires sound clinical judgment. Vocational school programs cover the basics from needle selection to safe positioning, but it takes common sense to apply these principles in the real world. The best phlebotomists get to know their patients, making decisions based on their clinical expertise and personal experience.
Many lab errors happen when blood is drawn. Inaccurate labels and poor-quality submissions related to faulty techniques result in samples being rejected. Detail-oriented medical assistants are less likely to make mistakes resulting in the need for repeat draws.
Anxiety is contagious. A fearful patient can tell when a phlebotomist is uneasy, so it’s important to be self-assured. Most new medical assistants have difficulty drawing blood at first, but it gets easier with practice. Until it does, remember that patients are counting on you for support, so project confidence.
As more private practices offer phlebotomy services, drawing blood will be an increasingly necessary skill for medical assistants. Vocational school students learn what they need to know to draw blood, but even the most experienced medical assistants miss once in a while. You just need to be bold enough to keep trying.
Ready for a new career in the medical assisting field? The Medical Assistant program at Hunter Business School prepares competent, entry-level medical assistants in the cognitive (knowledge), psychomotor (skills), and affective (behavior) learning domains required for professional practice. The Medical Assistant program provides hands-on experience in a real medical setting where you can foster professional relationships with actual patients. Medical Assistant students spend 160 hours in an externship in an actual medical environment where they are supervised and taught in order to gain valuable on-the-job training.
Contact us today to find out more on how to become a medical assistant on Long Island.