Medical professional collecting specimens

Step-by-Step Guide to Specimen Collection

Learn the procedures, steps, risks, and requirements for collecting lab specimens.

Medical professional collecting specimens

Specimen collection is a common component of routine checkups for your health. It goes hand-in-hand with lab tests, allowing medical professionals to obtain tissue or fluids to look for any changes in your health. In addition, they help physicians diagnose medical conditions, plan treatments, and monitor diseases. Mastering this skill will lead to a much better experience for healthcare practitioners and their patients.

As you can see, specimen collection is an essential procedure used for many medical diagnoses. This fundamental skill may not be exciting for new healthcare professionals, but it is crucial in developing the correct diagnosis for each patient.  Therefore, it can be particularly beneficial for Medical Assistants to learn the proper method of collecting specimens.

This article provides an in-depth guide on the art and science of specimen collection, one of the most important healthcare procedures for medical staff.

(Click here to see our full list of the most common Medical Assisting duties and responsibilities).

Specimen Collection Definition

What is Specimen Collection?

Collecting specimens is the process of acquiring tissue or fluids for laboratory analysis. Some of the samples collected may include serum samples, virology swab samples, biopsy and necropsy tissue, cerebrospinal fluid, whole blood for PCR, and urine samples. Medical Assistants collect these samples and then place them in specific containers for successful processing in a lab.

What is the Purpose of Specimen Collection?

Specimen collection is vital for acquiring an accurate and timely laboratory test result. To properly collect specimens, they must be obtained through designated containers, correctly labeled, and promptly transported to the lab.

How Long Does it Take to Collect Specimens?

Most specimens can be collected in a matter of minutes. It normally only takes a few minutes to transport them to the lab as well. However, some specimen collection may require more steps. It often depends on the type of tissue or fluid the patient has provided.

Who Can Collect Specimens?

Nurses typically collect specimens like urine, stool, and sputum (saliva/mucus from the respiratory tract). In addition, they may perform venipuncture to obtain blood samples. Specimens can also be collected by a variety of other healthcare professionals, such as Medical Assistants.

Although the rules can vary by state, Medical Assistants are often allowed to collect specimens through non-invasive measures. They preserve specimens for testing, including urine, sputum, semen, and stool. This common task allows MAs to assist physicians and other healthcare professionals by allowing them to see more patients or perform other tasks.

(Click here to learn how to become a Medical Assistant).

Training Requirements for Specimen Collection

Requirements for specimen collection can vary and depend on your location or profession. Aspiring nurses and other healthcare professionals will usually receive this training through their educational programs. However, others may pursue a job as specimen collectors. These individuals may need to meet other requirements in the SAMHSA handbook.

Some employers may prefer candidates with experience in healthcare. At Unitek College, we offer a Medical Assisting program that could give you a strong advantage when applying to nursing school or positions as a specimen collector for a federal agency program. Our courses include topics like specimen collection, pharmacology, medication administration, diagnostic imaging, and more.

Healthcare team gathered around a table

Specimen Collection Procedure

With these steps, you can start to learn more about the process of collecting specimens. Of course, just like any other skill, specimen collection requires a little time and practice to get it right. Remember to follow the rules of your facility and ask for help whenever necessary.

Specimen Collection Preparation

While most collections don’t require much prep, there are some guidelines that must be followed. These include reviewing the appropriate information, such as the indicated specimen type, the volume, the procedure, the collection materials, patient prep, and storage instructions.

Specimen Collection Steps

Here are some of the general guidelines you should follow when collecting specimens from a patient:

  1. Verify the patient’s identity. Some examples of acceptable identifiers include the patient’s name, date of birth, and hospital number.
  2. Acquire a sample from the patient. Treat all biological material as potentially hazardous and follow your facility’s guidelines.
  3. Process the specimen as required by your facility or employer.
  4. Store the specimen. Appropriate storage is critical to maintaining the integrity of the specimen and, therefore, the test results.


After the procedure, the patient can usually resume their normal activities. There isn’t a recovery period for most types of specimen collection (i.e., urine, stool, etc.) If you are ever in doubt, consult the attending physician first.

Necessary Equipment for Specimen Collection

Typically, the suggested supplies for specimen collection include but are not limited to the following items:

  • Gloves
  • Apron
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Specimen container
  • Body material sample
  • Incubator
  • Refrigerator or freezer

Potential Risks or Complications of Specimen Collection

Specimen collection is often safe and relatively painless for patients. Although there may be pain associated with blood draws, it should not be significant or cause any lasting damage.

The word tips in wooden letter blocks

Pro Tips for Mastering the Art of Specimen Collection

Here are some pro specimen collection tips that may assist you in the future.

  • Avoid frequent problems with attention to detail. Follow the guidelines of your facility to the letter.
  • Use two patient identifiers or more before collecting the sample.
  • Label containers for specimens while in the presence of the patient.
  • Ensure you aren’t using any expired containers.
  • Ensure that you are using the correct container. Some require preservatives, while others do not.
  • Do NOT transfer/pour specimens from one type of container into another.
  • Obtain a large enough quantity of the specimen to ensure the test can be performed (see the test’s requirements for more information).
  • Tighten container lids to avoid any leakage or contamination.
  • Keep the specimen at the recommended temperature as specified in the test requirements.
  • For urine collection, instruct the patient on how to provide a clean-catch, midstream sample.
    • Remember to add the preservative specified in the test requirements to the collection container before you ask for a sample.

Why Should Medical Assistants Learn How to Collect Specimens?

Although most facilities employ nurses and other healthcare professionals, it can be very beneficial for Medical Assistants to learn these skills as allowed per state law. This is because nurses may not always be available in smaller settings or even larger ones like hospitals.

While specimen collection isn’t always a job requirement, it is a valuable skill that can lead to greater opportunities. Therefore, it would be advantageous for MAs or aspiring Medical Assistants to pursue the proper training. Once they are prepared to perform certain specimen collection duties, an MA could become more indispensable to their employer and possibly gain greater responsibilities.

Start Your Career in Medical Assisting

The ability to collect specimens is an important skill that aspiring Medical Assistants should learn for their careers. It’s also an essential medical practice for several diagnoses and other procedures.

Think about it: Bodily specimens provide medical staff with critical information about a patient’s health. In order to determine the right diagnosis, they need to rely on accurate test results. This means that adequate specimen collection and handling are nothing short of essential to the success of a healthcare team.

If you’re feeling inspired and want to pursue a career in medicine, Unitek College offers various healthcare programs, such as our Medical Assisting program.

Contact us today to learn more about our programs and tuition assistance options. Take the first step toward a rewarding future in healthcare!