Writers research, it’s part of the lure of writing a story. Some totally dig the research: they take classes, travel to exotic places, interview experts in the field, etc… Some of us would totally dig the research but are limited by time and resources, so we wade through the internet. I’ve researched my own lab questions on the internet, but labs are only a phone call away.
Lab techs are a notoriously odd bunch. We freely admit it; we embrace it; we’re even proud of it. I would hope if a writer were to call their local hospital or clinic and ask to speak to the lab, they’d have a good experience. I can’t promise it. We might not understand what you’re asking and come off as rude. We’re really very nice people, trust me. But we often get treated like shit by much of the hospital staff. And that will bring me to topic #1:
1. Rules, rules, rules
If a writer ever blames the lab for an error, that book will be dead to me. There are statics out there (valid ones!) that show that the majority of sample errors happen BEFORE the sample reaches us. Wrong tests ordered, incorrect collection, mislabeled, wrong patient - you name it, it’s happened. But us lab rats are seldom seen out of our natural habitat so it’s easy to blame the voice on the other end of the line saying, no, we can’t run the sample because you didn’t label it and no, you can’t come down to the lab and pick one tube out of hundreds and swear it’s John Doe, date of birth 1/1/51.
Some tests have specific - AND I MEAN SPECIFIC - timing requirements. We cannot deviate because those results may be inaccurate. And treatment (or lack of) based on those results may harm or kill the patient! Many techs never leave the lab, but it doesn’t mean they don’t take patient care seriously. I still work a few shifts here and there, and I work in small clinics that can’t staff phlebotomists, so us techs draw blood. Before I run a blood test, I’ve just gotten done chatting with that sweet old lady, or talking down a hysterical kid (just kidding, I shamelessly avoid drawing kids), so my only concern is doing my job right.
That being said, many legitimate and serious lab errors occur in the lab. Just know - it’s a cop out for the docs and nurses to blame the lab for errors they don’t understand or don't want to admit to. I’ve been personally (and unprofessionally) thrown under the bus many times, even in front of a patient. But there’s good drama either way for character development, but like anything else, make sure it’s accurate drama.
2. We do exist.
I lose my shit when I read a story and it has the doctor doing the lab test. NO! Doctors order. Nurses make sure those orders get done. Lab techs test. Radiology techs xray. There are strict - AND I DO MEAN STRICT - requirements on who can perform what tests. I can't xray and a rad tech can't test urine. I can't give shots and a nurse can't test blood.
Some lab tests are easier, can be done at the patient bedside, so nurses and docs (though they don't usually have the time) can be trained on them. BUT! - Almost all of the tests need to be performed by *specifically* certified, licensed, and trained personnel, and we have to document our competency on those tests annually.
I hate calling myself a lab tech, but it’s terminology most people understand. Yet they don’t. Lab tech can be a title for someone hired off the street and trained on-the-job in menial lab-based activities and are found mostly in research labs. In clinical labs (and most research labs), we have degrees. Specific degrees. And only those of us with those magic degrees can do the lab testing. There are two year degrees (with internship), four year (with internship), and masters. Even a Ph.D. program. The degree dictates what we’re allowed to do in the lab.
I went to school and got a B.S. in Microbiology. Pretty cool. Until I found out I couldn’t do any clinical microbiology in my state; they only hire med techs. That left, like, two other microbiology positions in the great state of North Dakota. I’m exaggerating (not by much). I had to be licensed and only large facilities like Mayo hire microbiologists and get them licensed. So I went back to finish a B.S. in Medical Technology. Since I was on a roll, I went and got my M.S. in Clinical Laboratory Science. Then I became a stay-at-home mom… Don’t ask me for career advice. But I'm pretty damn qualified to do that pregnancy test the doctor supposedly did in one book I read.
3. Google time limits. Please.
Just like DNA testing doesn’t happen within hours like CSI has us believing, lab tests can take weeks - or minutes. So if waiting weeks for a lab test is crucial to your main character’s arc, make sure it’s a test that wouldn’t be done within an hour.
General tests like what you get at your yearly physical take hours, if that. A day or two if it’s a small clinic or hospital and they need to send that sample to a bigger lab. Even most STD testing is complete within twenty-four hours. Cancer antigen testing will probably be done within a week. Some of the more exotic testing - immune disorders, unusual antigen testing - may take longer. The lab I work for sends many, many tests to Mayo and we still say the turnaround is a week.
So much is automated now days and that really speeds things up. The analyzer testing your cholesterol may have cost more than the doc’s Lexus out in the parking lot. However, some things take longer. General rule - the more unusual the test, the longer it will take. The test itself may take a few hours, but to get enough samples to batch a test run and make it cost effective, the lab may only run the test a certain time each week.
4. Result reporting should be accurate too
I get it. It’s more dramatic to have your characters make a special appointment and sit and worry how their labs turned out. Just know, the general practice is:
Negative/Not to worry results - letter in the mail
Positive/Abnormal results - phone call
You’re dying/It's really, really bad - you need to come in and talk
Of course, different docs and healthcare systems might vary, but it’s inaccurate writing when a character has to sit and fret in a doctor’s office waiting for negative test results - from weeks ago.
It sounds awful of me, but since I read paranormal romance, that’s why I started writing it - aaaand not as much research. My world, my rules. Writing contemporary romance - there’s researching the career of both the hero and heroine, research of the conflict, research the location, and more research. If I had to write a historical, I’d probably be in the corner, huddled in ball, crying.
The beauty of writers is that most of us didn’t go to school for writing, and we love talking and sharing our knowledge and experience as much as writing. So check in with them, too. The smallest details will only make your story richer.