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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
The ability to effectively to support others during stressful situations
The ability to understand reading materials and apply what was read
The ability to write clearly, including translating complicated information into general terms
The ability to communicate clearly and accurately with others through face-to-face, telephone, written or other formats
The ability to remain focused during times of stress or distraction
The ability to review a situation or issues and devise an appropriate solution
Specialized knowledge and skills in the medical field, such as taking a blood sample or performing an X-ray
Knowledge of first-aid treatment and life-support care to injured individuals
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.
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.
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 Lifts, Wheelchairs, Canes
Cardiac Monitors, Blood Pressure Monitors, Anesthesia Equipment
MRI, X-Ray, Ultrasound
Pulse Oximeter, Blood Pressure Cuff, Stethoscope
Defibrillator, Ventilator, Intravenous Catheters
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.
NueMD, Kareo, SystemOne
Meditech, EPIC, eClinical Works
athenaCommunicator, Sumac, OnBase
Siements SIENET Sky, Epic, Misys Healthcare Systems)
Microsoft Office, Excel, Word, Outlook
QuickPractice, ECLIPSE, e-MDs Chart
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.
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
Below is a list of the fastest growing medical and health occupations (2012 to 2022), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
|Personal care aides||49%|
|Home health aides||48%|
|Diagnostic medical sonographers||46%|
|Occupational therapy assistants||43%|
|Physical therapy assistants||41%|
|Physical therapy aides||40%|
|Occupational therapy aides||36%|
|Postsecondary health specialties teachers||36%|
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.