Today, tremendous opportunities for career success and advancement exist within the health care industry, buoyed by increasing demand for services and a shortage of qualified professionals. There are projected openings across disciplines in both hands-on patient care positions and administrative occupations. The following guide explores the various degree and career paths in the health care industry, examines skills and credentials for success, and provides an overview of the employment outlook and earning potential for individuals interested in a health care degree and career.

Medical and Health Degrees and Career Paths

Health care is one of the rare industries that actually grew during the Great Recession and is continuing to expand rapidly. Driven by increased demand spurred by an aging population and new health care legislation, the next decade is projected to be bright for qualified health care workers. Overall, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 5 million new jobs in the sector between 2012 and 2022.

The medical and health sectors are divided into numerous specialty areas, offering prospective students the opportunity to pursue a diverse array of academic and career avenues. The chart below offers a snapshot of some of the major health disciplines and areas of practice.

Medicine Dentistry Podiatry Optometry Chiropractic Medicine Pharmacy Public Health
Cardiology Endodontics Primary Care Vision Therapy Diagnostic Imaging Clinical Pharmacy Epidemiology
Dermatology Orthodontics Orthopedics Ocular Disease Neurology Oncology Community Health
Radiology Pediatric Dentistry Geriatrics Family Practice Sports Injuries Nuclear Medicine Social Work

Besides field of practice, there are several professional directions to consider:

Health Care Administration: Health care administration focuses on the development, implementation and maintenance of policies and service delivery by health care providers and organizations. Health care administrators manage organizations such as private clinics, hospitals, home health agencies, nursing homes, and health systems.

Public Health: Public health deals with the research into and promotion of healthy behaviors and practices at the community to global levels. It covers a broad list of disciplines, such as health education, community health, epidemiology, child health, nutrition, environmental health, and infectious diseases.

Clinical Care: Clinical care involves providing hands-on care to patients and their families in various settings, such as hospitals, physician offices, dentist offices, mental health facilities or rehabilitation clinics. Clinical care includes support and laboratory positions, such as radiology technology and physical therapy assisting.

Below is a list of degree and career paths open to individuals seeking education and a career in medicine or health:

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists provide anesthesia services to patients in a variety of health care settings, such as hospitals, surgical centers, plastic surgery offices, dental practices, and delivery rooms. As an advanced form of nursing, CRNAs are independent providers who manage a patient’s anesthesia prior to, during, and after surgical or medical procedures. This process includes performing physical assessments, preparing for anesthetic management, administering and maintaining anesthesia, monitoring patient recovery, and following up with the patient’s postoperative care. CRNAs must complete a graduate program of study that includes both clinical experience and classroom instruction, pass a certification examination, and meet professional requirements before earning a license to practice.

Education requirements
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or bachelor’s degree in a related field
  • Master’s degree from an accredited nursing anesthesia educational program
  • A current, active registered nursing license
  • At least one year of professional experience working as a registered nurse in a critical care setting
  • Successful score on the National Certification Examination
  • State license
Medical Assistant

Medical assistants are multidisciplinary experts that perform a range of administrative and clinical duties in different health care settings, such as hospitals, ambulatory care centers, rehabilitation facilities, or private physician offices. As important members of the health care team, medical assistants carry out tasks such as answering phones, scheduling appointments, greeting patients, or filling out insurance forms. Clinically, they may take patient histories, assist physicians during a physical exam, manage medical equipment or collect laboratory specimens. One of the fastest growing occupations (29 percent job growth), medical assisting allows for quick entry into the profession with a training program and certification examination.

Education requirements
  • Certificate, diploma or associate degree from an accredited medical assisting program
  • Pass the Certified Medical Assisting certification examination from the American Association of Medical Assistants OR
  • Pass the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) examination sponsored by the American Medical Technologists
Epidemiologist

The field of public health is concerned with improving the health of individuals, communities and families – locally, nationally and globally. Epidemiologists are central to this endeavor, responsible for conducting scientific research into diseases to develop solutions, devise preventative measures, and design ways to educate others. Within this varied practice, epidemiologists may work in diverse arenas, such as infection control, health policy, and disease management. An advanced degree (master’s or Ph.D.) is required to work in the field and epidemiologists may choose to specialize in any number of areas (e.g. occupational disease, reproductive health, environmental hazards).

Education requirements
  • Bachelor’s degree in any field with a background in mathematics and related science fields (e.g. biology, chemistry, physiology)
  • Master’s degree in epidemiology from an accredited university
  • OPTIONAL: Doctoral degree in epidemiology from an accredited program (for individuals pursuing research careers)
  • Complete fellowship or externship program
  • OPTIONAL: Certification from the Certification Board for Infection Control and Epidemiology (CBIC) or Association for Professional in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC)
Home Health Aide

The quickly aging U.S. population and rising demand for homecare services has created robust opportunities for home health aides. With career growth reaching nearly 50 percent between 2012 and 2022, it is an exciting time to enter the field. Home health aides offer an assortment of supportive care services to patients in their own homes or in other settings (e.g. assisted living facilities.). These services range from assisting with daily living activities (e.g. bathing and getting dressed) to administering medications. As patient liaisons, home health aides are often the eyes and ears of supervising nurses and doctors, helping them to track a patient’s care and update on their condition. Entry into the career typically only requires a high school diploma and on-the-job training.

Education requirements
  • High school diploma
  • OPTIONAL: Certificate from an accredited program in home health aide care
  • On-the-job-training
Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists are licensed medical professionals who treat oral diseases and help patients maintain good oral health. They perform dental examinations and clean patients’ teeth by removing stains, plaque and tartar. Under the supervision of a dentist, they help manage patient care and treatment plans, take X-rays, and educate patients on proper oral hygiene techniques. A rapidly growing field, dental hygienists are expected to see 33 percent job growth between 2012 and 2022. Prospective students can enter the field relatively quickly, with a two-year degree and passing required written and clinical examinations.

Education requirements
  • Associate degree in dental hygiene from an educational program accredited by the American Dental Association
  • OPTIONAL: Bachelor’s or master’s degree in dental hygiene from an accredited program
  • Passing score on the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
  • Meet state clinical examination and licensing requirements, such as a passing score on the ADEX Dental Hygiene Examination from The Commission on Dental Competency Assessments
Registered Nurse

Nursing is one of the largest health fields, with more than 2.7 million registered nurses employed across the country. Registered nurses are licensed to provide and coordinate patient care in every health care setting, such as hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and schools. They perform physical exams, conduct patient assessments, administer medications, counsel patients and families, and supervise medical care provided by licensed vocational nurses and certified nursing assistants. Nursing offers a spectrum of specializations (e.g. oncology, pediatrics) and opportunities to transition into advanced nursing practices (e.g. CRNA, Advanced Nurse Practitioner). An associate degree, clinical training and successful completion of a national examination are the common minimum educational requirements to employment.

Education requirements
  • Associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited institution of higher education
  • Passing score on the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN)
  • Meet state-level licensing requirements

Did You Know?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, health care occupations requiring a master’s degree are projected to grow by 28.7 percent between 2012 and 2022, followed by associate degrees (25.4 percent), and postsecondary non-degree awards (22.3 percent)

Components of a Successful Medical and Health Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology

Skill

The specific field of practice, specialty, and setting often determines the skills required within the medical and health industries. Health careers rely on strong knowledge of science and the specific area of practice, such as nursing, public health, medicine, or pharmacy, to name a few. However, there is a common set of core skills that all health care professionals should possess.

Empathy and Support Skills

The ability to effectively to support others during stressful situations

Reading Comprehension

The ability to understand reading materials and apply what was read

Writing Skills

The ability to write clearly, including translating complicated information into general terms

Oral Communication Skills

The ability to communicate clearly and accurately with others through face-to-face, telephone, written or other formats

Organizational Skills

The ability to remain focused during times of stress or distraction

Problem Solving Skills

The ability to review a situation or issues and devise an appropriate solution

Clinical Skills

Specialized knowledge and skills in the medical field, such as taking a blood sample or performing an X-ray

First-Aid Skills

Knowledge of first-aid treatment and life-support care to injured individuals

Credentials

In order to practice, many health care professions require licensure, which is different from credentialing or certification. Licensing is the process of receiving approval from a regulating body to legally work or practice medicine in a specific discipline. Certification, on the other hand, is a voluntary designation that demonstrates an individual’s knowledge, performance, or qualification within a discipline, task, or job.

The health care industry is home to a broad range of certification options for both clinical and administrative professionals. They are available in a diverse range of specializations, including cardiovascular technology, medical assisting, nutrition, medical billing, respiratory therapy, diagnostic imaging, and health care administration. Below is a brief list of certifications available in nursing, allied health careers, medical assisting, and health care administration.

American Nurses Credentialing Center
  • Ambulatory Care Nursing
  • Informatics Nursing
  • Cardiac-Vascular Nursing
  • Pediatric Nursing
National Healthcareer Association
  • Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA)
  • Phlebotomy Technician (CPT)
  • EKG Technician (CET)
  • Electronic Health Records Specialist (CEHRS)
  • Pharmacy Technician (CPhT)
  • Billing and Coding Specialist (CBCS)
  • Patient Care Technician (CPCT)
American Association of Medical Assistants
  • Certified Medical Assistant
National Association for Healthcare Quality
  • Certified Professional in Healthcare Quality
National Association for Practical Nurse Education and Service (NAPNES)
  • Certified in Long-Term Care (CLTC)
  • Certified in Pharmacology (NCP)
  • Certified in IV Therapy (IVT)
  • Certified in Rehabilitation and Practical Nursing (RPNC)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that certification is often required by employers as it serves as an indication of the candidate’s knowledge, expertise, and dedication to the field. Certifications typically have to be renewed on a regular basis and require continuing education.

Tools and Technology

Medical and health professionals use a variety of tools, most of which are specific to their specialty area and field of practice, whether the individual works in a clinical or administrative position, and the type of patient care. Below is an example list of tools used frequently in clinical care settings.

Patient Assistance Tools

Patient Lifts, Wheelchairs, Canes

Patient Monitoring Equipment

Cardiac Monitors, Blood Pressure Monitors, Anesthesia Equipment

Medical Imaging Equipment

MRI, X-Ray, Ultrasound

Diagnostic Medical Tools

Pulse Oximeter, Blood Pressure Cuff, Stethoscope

Life Saving Equipment

Defibrillator, Ventilator, Intravenous Catheters

Cardiac Diagnostic Equipment

EKG, Echocardiogram, Myocardial Perfusion Imaging

The coordination of patient care – from administration to billing – is largely managed with technological and software solutions. The table below offers a sample of the software used in medical billing, patient records management, and clinical care organization.

Medical Billing Software

NueMD, Kareo, SystemOne

Medical Records Software

Meditech, EPIC, eClinical Works

Patient Case Management Software

athenaCommunicator, Sumac, OnBase

Database Software

Siements SIENET Sky, Epic, Misys Healthcare Systems)

Office Software

Microsoft Office, Excel, Word, Outlook

Medical Management Software

QuickPractice, ECLIPSE, e-MDs Chart

Medical and Health Career Salaries

The medical and health industry not only has some of the fastest-growing occupational fields in the country, but some of the best paying as well. The specialized nature of providing medical services, coupled with the increasing need for medical care has led to booming salary levels across almost every occupation. Of the medical and health careers categorized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 72 percent pay an average salary of more than $50,000 per year, with more than half of those occupations paying at least $80,000 per year.

The best paying salaries are reserved for individuals with advanced or professional degrees who provide advanced levels of medical care – such as surgeons, psychiatrists, dentists, and optometrists. However, opportunities for a well paying career exist at all degree levels. Below is a list of some of the best earning medical and health careers, regardless of educational attainment.

$181,880 Psychiatrists
$170,110 Dentists
$163,350 Pediatricians
$96,970 Nurse Midwives
$95,820 Physician Assistants
$95,350 Nurse Practitioners
$80,090 Radiation Therapists
$78,810 Occupational Therapists
$72,100 Nuclear Medicine Technologists
$71,520 Dental Hygienists
$67,530 Diagnostic Medical Sonographers
$56,950 Dietitians and Nutritionists

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational and Employment Wages, 2014

Medical and Health Career Job Growth, Prospects, and Outlook

As of 2014, more than 12 million individuals are employed in medical and health-related occupations in the U.S., according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And, health care employment will continue to gain a greater share of the total workforce in the U.S. By 2020, The Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University of Albany projects that 11 percent of the U.S. workforce (one out of every nine positions) will be in the health sector.

Employment data from the BLS reveals the health sector should grow by approximately 30 percent in the 2010-2020 decade and 65 percent of the country’s top 20 careers are in medical and health fields. There are three major factors driving this growth:

Aging Population: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of individuals aged 65 and over is projected to reach nearly 84 million, which is almost double the 43 million in 2012. The aging populace will require additional health care services, including preventative- and long-term care assistance.

Health Care Laws: The Affordable Care Act has altered the landscape of patient care, providing a greater percentage of the population with medical benefits – which means more medical visits and demand for services.

Advancing Technology: Some experts label it Health 2.0, a new era of medicine where technology and data are leveraged to improve patient care, patient-to-doctor communication, and patient health habits. Companies and the federal government alike are funneling money into health care IT – from digitizing health records to medical translation apps to patient data analysis.

The best opportunities are expected to be largely concentrated in the following service sectors:

Home health services: 60 percent growth

  • Individual and family services: 54 percent growth
  • Outpatient, laboratory and other ambulatory care services: 45 percent growth
  • Office of health practitioners: 31 percent growth
  • Nursing and residential care facilities: 24 percent growth

Below is a list of the fastest growing medical and health occupations (2012 to 2022), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Occupation Growth
Industrial-organizational psychologists 53%
Personal care aides 49%
Home health aides 48%
Diagnostic medical sonographers 46%
Occupational therapy assistants 43%
Genetic counselors 41%
Physical therapy assistants 41%
Physical therapy aides 40%
Physician assistants 38%
Occupational therapy aides 36%
Postsecondary health specialties teachers 36%
Medical secretaries 36%
Physical therapists 36%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational and Employment Wages

Related Occupations & Salaries: What You Need to Know

As noted above, the medical and health sectors are extremely diverse with career avenues available in clinical, administrative and research practices. The table below includes the educational requirements, salary and projected job growth for a selected list of health-related careers.