Healthcare Professions

healthcare professions

Information compiled by the team - last updated December 2010

There might be more options in the healthcare professions than you think.

Dental hygienist

Dental hygienist is to dentist as nurse is to medical doctor: this is a commonly stated analogy, and an apt one. Many people who end up in dental hygiene school considered nursing. Many also considered other helping careers like teaching. It’s a job that requires patience, kindness, and an interest in advising often non-committal patients about the importance of better care of their teeth. The dental hygienist is the person you spend the most time with when you visit the dentist’s office. These people are absolutely crucial to the ability of dentists to earn a living.

Hygienists do the health assessment, cleaning, and imaging in routine visits, and the dentist only makes an appearance at the very end to confirm the hygienist’s diagnosis or lack thereof. It can feel like a fairly independent role, because the hygienist has the primary interaction with the patient, and usually takes on the responsibility for educating the patient about oral care. And now that we understand the direct link between periodontal plaque and atherosclerosis (plaque in the arteries, leading to heart attacks), there’s no mistaking the crucial role that dental hygiene plays in health of the whole body, not just the mouth. In addition to routine cleanings, hygienists do more difficult tasks like scaling and root planing. These can involve giving anesthetic injections, and dealing with quite a bit of blood. Like many other allied healthcare roles, hygienists are seeing their scope of responsibilities expand. Some states recently legislated that hygienists can do “restorative” treatment, i.e., fill cavities (after the dentist preps the tooth first).


Though dentists are dedicated to preventing and treating their patients' tooth and mouth ailments, few professionals, including other physicians, are as dreaded as the dentist. In reality, dentists do a great deal of good. Besides the general practitioner most of us are familiar with, there are also specialists who enable even the ugliest of mouths to shine like the sun. These include orthodontists, who straighten teeth and repair chips and fractured molars; periodontists, on the other hand, perform corrective surgery on gums and bones to treat diseases. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons operate on the mouth and jaws, correcting disfigurements from accidents and removing abscessed teeth. Unpleasant as these procedures are, new techniques and anesthetics can minimize the pain and discomfort. Furthermore, if we visited dentists more regularly than most of us do, we could avoid the painful, tooth-drilling experiences that give them a bad rap.

Roughly one out of every five health care practices is a dentist’s office. Most dentists are solo practitioners and work with a small staff in private practice, although a few have partners, and some are employed by large employers, such as universities or corporations. Dentists with their own businesses have fairly flexible schedules, as they make their own appointments. However, this doesn't mean they're out on the golf course every day. Most dentists work four or five days a week, while some work evenings and on Saturdays to accommodate their patients' schedules.

Being a good dentist requires more than just hard work, though. Dentistry requires keen diagnostic abilities and manual dexterity. Newly minted dentists should also enter the profession armed with a sense of humor, both to put patients at ease and to deflect the poor morale that can stem from patients' uneasiness. And then there are the official prerequisites. Requirements for certification by the American Dental Association (ADA) are strict; candidates must graduate from an ADA accredited school and pass written and practical examinations after completing four years of dental school.

Aspiring dentists spend four years in dental school, the last two years of which are spent treating patients, usually in clinics under the supervision of licensed dentists. Most dental schools award the Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) or the Doctor of Dental Medicine degree (D.M.D.). Each year about one-fourth to one-third of new graduates enroll in postgraduate training programs to prepare for a dental specialty such as orthodontics. All 50 states and the District of Columbia require dentists to be licensed by the American Dental Association in order to practice dentistry. Although a dentist can open up a private practice as soon as this certification is gained, many recent dental school graduates work for established dentists as associates for a year or two in order to gain experience and save money to start their own practices or buy an existing one.

Emergency medical technician (EMT) / paramedic

EMTs give immediate care and are first on the scene of accidents. Dispatchers tell them where to go and EMTs transport victims to medical facilities. CPR and other basic and immediate medical skills are needed in this job (i.e., controlling breathing, using defibrillators, assisting in childbirth).

Healthcare aide

Health care aids help nursesin many different settings like hospitals and dentist offices. Duties can be varied from ordering supplies to cleaning medical kits. Many health care aides can simply attend a technical or training school instead of waitingfortheir four-year anniversary.

Home health aide

Home health aides report to registered nurses, physical therapists or other health professions and give personal care to patients. They are also known as home caregivers and residential assistants. Patients that home health aides care for include the elderly, the terminally ill, the physically disabled and those with mental illness. Most home health aides work full-time, although some work part-time and typically for the state or welfare agency.

Licensed practical nurse

Also known as LPNs, these nurses work under the supervision of registered nurses and doctors. LPNs start and administer IVs, read charts, take blood and urine samples and can administer select drugs. They sometimes supervise nursing assistants and orderlies.

Medical imaging specialist

Medical imaging is an umbrella term for a variety of specialties. Those in the medical imaging field may specialize in paths including radiography, nuclear medicine, radiation therapy, ultrasound/sonography, CT scans and MRIs. Salaries for this career ranges anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000.


Nurses may be doctors' assistants, but they provide much more than just support to their M.D. counterparts. Registered nurses (RNs) not only care for their patients' physical condition, but they are often the sole source of comfort to people in times of trauma, such as after an accident or just before going under the knife. Nurses spend more time with patients than doctors; sometimes they even spend more time with patients than the patients' families. Because of this close relationship with patients, there is immense physical and emotional strain associated with being a nurse, as well as many rewards. With over two million jobs, nursing is the largest occupation in the field of health care, and the demand is growing.

As the current crop of registered nurses advance towards retirement, not enough younger workers are entering the field to replace them. This shortage may result in greater perks in order to attract and retain qualified nurses. Generally speaking, registered nurses promote health, prevent disease, and help patients cope with illness. In more specific terms, this entails assisting physicians during treatments and examinations, administering medications and assisting in rehabilitation. RNs also provide instruction in health care and manage nursing care plans. Nurses generally fall into several main groups, depending on where they work: hospitals, private practice, schools, private homes, etc.. 

  • Hospital nurses, the largest group, are staff nurses who provide bedside nursing care and carry out the medical regimen prescribed by physicians. They also supervise licensed practical nurses and aides. Hospital nurses are typically assigned to one area such as surgery, maternity, pediatrics, emergency, ICU or oncology, but they sometimes rotate among departments. 
  • Office nurses work in private practice, clinics, surgicenters, emergency medical centers, and HMOs, serving as right hands to doctors in these medical facilities.
  • Home health nurses provide periodic services, prescribed by a physician, to patients at home. They also provide support to patients and their families, and at times work independently.
  • Nurses who work in nursing homes manage care for elderly residents. They spend most of their time on administrative tasks, but also assess the medical condition of residents and work in rehabilitation units, assisting patients recovering from strokes and injuries.
  • Public health nurses work for government and private agencies in clinics, schools, and retirement communities. They are professionals in disease prevention, proper nutrition, and prenatal care.
  • Occupational health or industrial nurses provide care at work sites to employees, either in the case of injury, or for general wellness.
  • Nurse practitioners are the most advanced nurses, with the power to write prescriptions and independently diagnose and treat patients.

It is common for hospital nurses to maintain long, irregular hours, often working double shifts or staying on call 24 hours a day. Occupational health and office nurses work more conventional 40-hour weeks. Nursing can also be a dangerous occupation, as nurses are sometimes exposed to highly infectious diseases and handle sharp objects, needles and blood.

After graduating from an accredited nursing school and passing a state licensing examination, an entry-level registered nurse will have graduated from one of three programs: the associate degree of nursing (A.D.N) program, the bachelor of science in nursing (B.S.N.) program, or a two-year nursing program from a community or junior college. An enrolled student in one of these programs can expect courses in such subjects as anatomy, microbiology and nutrition, as well as nursing. In addition, students receive supervised clinical experience in hospitals, ambulances, or nursing homes.

A bachelor's degree is generally necessary for administrative positions in hospitals and for positions in community nursing or teaching. Experience and a good performance record bring a promotion to management, assistant head nurse or head nurse. The next advancement level is assistant director of nursing, then director, and vice president. Increasingly, management-level nursing positions require a graduate degree in nursing or health services administration. Graduate programs that prepare nurses for executive positions are one to two years long. If nurses want to advance within patient care positions, a one- to two-year graduate education is also needed to become a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist or a certified nurse anesthetist. Another career option is to become a consultant for health care corporations in health planning and development, marketing and quality assurance.


Nutritionists advise others on how to eat and other dietary matters. They plan nutrition programs and, in some cases,supervise meal preparation and serving size.Their main focus is to promote healthy eating and prevent (or treat) illnesses.

Occupational therapist

Occupational Therapists prepare soldiers to return to active duty or transition to civilian life and help the young and old to learn or relearn everyday skills. The goal for clients is to become more independent—that could mean anything from helping a Down syndrome child learn how to button their shirt or a stroke patient manipulate a car steering wheel. OTs are not to be confused with physical therapists, who do more corporeal tasks working to build a patient’s range of motion rather than life-specific tasks.


Opticians aren’t just eye doctors, they also fill eye prescriptions written by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. In fact, many people get the three careers confused. Opticians are the ones working the front lines, talking to customers and taking clients’ facial measurements for their glasses. Optometrists perform eye exams and can prescribe drugs for eye problems, while ophthalmologists perform eye surgeries and need a medical license to practice.


Pathologists are physicians that diagnose diseases and conditions through laboratory methods like samples and tests. Pathologists usually have a medical degree and then attend special training to specialize. These physicians study the cause and history of diseases on living people, but occasionally corpses as well.


These days it seems there is a prescription drug to cure anything and everything. That's why pharmacists are everyone's best friends: they advise and dispense drugs and give advice to consumers and physicians, making sure no one mixes anything they shouldn't. Their work treats diseases, saves lives and eases pain. However the mortar and pestle "compounding," or mixing of powders, tablets, capsules, and ointments is no longer the domain of the pharmacist, because most medicines are manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.

There are two major types of pharmacists: retail and hospital. Retail pharmacists advise customers about prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and their possible side effects and interactions. Three out of five pharmacists work in community pharmacies, often managing them as well. The hours can be demanding, since many pharmacies are open all night and on holidays. Most full-time, salaried pharmacists work an average of 50 hours a week. Pharmacists in hospitals and clinics also dispense medications and advice, but also instruct medical staff on the selection and effects of drugs, monitor patients' drug regimens, and evaluate drug use patterns in the hospital. It is common for pharmacists to specialize in specific aspects of drug therapy, such as those used to treat psychiatric disorders, radiopharmaceuticals or oncology.

Pharmacists can work outside of retail pharmacies and hospitals, too. For example, some pharmacists apply their knowledge to narcotics investigations for law enforcement agencies. Research pharmacists work on teams with doctors and biologists to develop new drugs and seek out cures.

All states require a license to practice pharmacy. To obtain a license, a pharmacist must graduate from an accredited college of pharmacy, pass a state examination, and serve an internship under a licensed pharmacist. Colleges of pharmacy train students to dispense prescriptions, communicate with patients, and strengthen their understanding of professional ethics. Instruction is focusing more and more on training pharmacists on the subtleties of direct patient care and consulting services to other health professionals. Since 2000, all new pharmacists must graduate from a six-year program (two years pre-pharmacy and four years in pharmacy school). These pharmacists will all have Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm. D) degrees. BS pharmacists will still be in the market, but aspiring pharmacists will all go through the six-year commitment.

In community (retail) pharmacies, pharmacists usually begin at the staff level. After they gain experience and secure the necessary capital, many become owners or part-owners of pharmacies. Pharmacists in chain drug stores may be promoted to supervisory pharmacist at the store level, followed by the district level, and later to an executive position within the chain's headquarters. Pharmacists in the pharmaceutical industry may advance in marketing, sales, research, quality control, production and other areas. Pharmacy students interested in research must have a Pharm. D, though some enter fellowship programs which are designed to prepare students to do independent research.

Physical therapist

When athletes tear tendons, dancers sprain their knees, and anyone injured in an accident needs more than a cast and some painkillers, a physical therapist takes over where a physician leaves off. Physical therapists prescribe and oversee a regimen of strengthening exercises, stretching and other non-surgical treatments, all as an attempt to bring their patients as far back to full strength as possible, sometimes as quickly as possible. Therapists also occasionally use electrical stimulation and ultrasound to relieve the pain associated with injuries or terminal illnesses, teach patients to use crutches, prostheses and wheelchairs, and help them to cope with their injuries on a day-to-day basis.

Physical therapists combine their medical expertise with assessments of patients' medical histories and individual needs to develop treatment plans. Physical therapists can work in both general and specific areas. They can work with patients from ages 9 to 90 (pediatrics and geriatrics respectively) and from head to toe (neurology and orthopedics) - there are numerous possibilities for specialization.

Some physical therapists work in hospitals, schools, home health agencies, nursing homes and physicians' offices; others have strong enough client bases to open their own practices. Both those in private practice and those who work for agencies or other employers occasionally travel to the homes of patients who are unable to travel to hospitals for treatment. Many develop close, long-term relationships with their patients as they document their progress and modify treatment programs.

Therapists typically work eight hours a day, but frequently find that their patients' needs extend into evenings and weekends. In addition to technical expertise, physical therapists must possess compassion and tact, especially when dealing with a patient's family. Physical therapists must be in top physical condition to lift and move their patients and heavy equipment, but also to spend a great deal of time on their feet, since their jobs require them to actively participate in their patients' treatment.

In order to practice physical therapy, therapists must complete a four-year undergraduate program. Most physical therapy programs start with basic biology, chemistry and physics courses. Later in the program a student begins the study of biomechanics, neuroanatomy, human growth and development, manifestations of disease and trauma, evaluation and assessment techniques, research and therapy. Like physicians, therapists receive supervised clinical experience in hospitals. After the four-year program, most students with aspirations of working with patients or starting their own practices pursue a graduate level degree.

In the past, a master's degree in physical therapy (MPT) was often sufficient to gain employment, but more schools now offer doctoral degrees in physical therapy (DPT). The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the largest professional association for the field in the United States, identified 205 accredited physical therapy programs in 2004; 94 of the programs offered MPTs and 111 offered DPTs, a disparity that should only increase in coming years. The APTA has also predicted that every physical therapist will have a DPT degree by the year 2020.

Competition for entry to physical therapy programs is tough, so top grades from reputable schools are imperative. Volunteer experience in hospitals or clinics is also extremely helpful in gaining admittance. In order to advance past an administrative or research position, a master's degree is usually required. Physical therapists who want to stay on top of developments in the profession take continuing education courses and workshops; some states even require a certain number of hours of continuing coursework to maintain licensure.

Occupational  / rehabilitation therapist

Occupational therapists help patients restore movements, relieve pain and improve mobility for improved functionality in daily life. Strategies often include exercise that will improve strength and endurance. Many of the requirements and functions of occupational therapy parallel those of physical therapists. Occupational therapists practice in hospital, out-patient clinics, and private practices and most work full-time with a variety of patients.


Physician is a general term for a medical doctor who practices medicine. There are tons of different specialties a physician may have from being a radiologist to working with sports medicine. Many physicians work long and irregular hours and are often “on call.”

Physician's assistant / nurse practitioner

If you ever wanted to be a doctor but the prospect of eight years of schooling plus an internship, a residency and thousands of dollars in student loans didn’t sound appealing, then think again. This time think about becoming a physician assistant. Physician assistants combine the best of both worlds: less school time and higher-level health care responsibilities. PAs do 80 percent of what physicians do like administer physical exams, diagnose and make treatment plans, order and interpret lab tests, make rounds in hospitals, provide preventive health care, assist in surgery and prescribe medications. However, work is determined by the supervising physician, so PAs can have varying loads of responsibility depending on their supervisor.

The PA profession is a relatively new career path that arose in the mid 60s amid a time when physicians were in short supply and unequally distributed in the U.S. Military medics were coming home from Vietnam seeking to apply their skills to civilian jobs, and thus, the PA was born.PAs have a unique educational path. Unlike nursing, PAs usually have a bachelor’s degree in a science related subject and approximately four years of health care experience before entering PA school. Many times EMTs, nurses and paramedics enter the PA profession.

Physician Assistant Programs run from two to three years, and 90 percent of these programs award a master’s degree. The Academy of Physician Assistants quotes the average total cost of PA schools at $46,000. After graduation PAs hit the ground running - no internships or residencies are required. Continuing education is mandated though; PAs must log at least 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and renew their certification from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) every six years.

Psychiatrist / psychologist

Wanna talk? A psychologist is ready to listen. Psychologists are perceived as the kinder, gentler brand of "shrinks." They are distinct from psychiatrists in that they do not prescribe drugs and do not hold medical degrees. Psychologists are social scientists and behavioralists - they are students of human behavior. More specifically, they investigate the physical, cognitive, emotional, or social aspects of human behavior. They formulate hypotheses and collect data, and gather information through controlled laboratory experiments, as well as through personality, performance, aptitude and intelligence tests. The types The most common specialty is clinical psychology - or the face-to-face diagnosis and treatment of patients experiencing some kind of mental distress. The majority of clinical psychologists work either in a private group or individual practice, though many hold staff positions in hospitals or clinics.

Clinical psychologists provide group therapy, such as bereavement counseling, marriage and child counseling, and drug or alcohol counseling. They may collaborate with physicians and other specialists in developing and implementing treatment and intervention programs. As part of their involvement, psychologists work to make these programs less alienating and complex to their patients. Other specialties within psychology include cognitive psychology, health psychology, and neuropsychology. Cognitive psychologists deal with memory, thinking and perception. Health psychologists promote wellness by providing health counseling programs that help people quit smoking, lose weight, and battle chemical dependency. Neuropsychologists study the relationship between the brain and human behavior; they are particularly interested in head injuries and strokes. Another major group are developmental psychologists, who study the patterns and causes of behavioral change as people progress from infancy to adulthood. Some developmental psychologists specialize in behavior during infancy, childhood and adolescence, while others study changes that take place during maturity or old age. The study of developmental disabilities and how they affect people is a relatively new area within developmental psychology.

Psychologists aren't simply confined to the study of the disturbed or other special cases. As behavioralists, their work is applicable in every aspect of human life. For example, industrial-organizational psychologists apply psychological techniques to personnel administration, management and marketing problems. They are involved in applicant screening, training and development, counseling, and organizational development and analysis. An industrial psychologist might work with management to develop better training programs and to reorganize the work setting to improve worker productivity or quality of worklife.

About half of all psychologists in the United States are self-employed. Clinical, school, and counseling psychologists in private practice generally set their own hours and can work in comfortable offices - sometimes within their homes. They are, however, expected to be available to their clients on weekends and evenings. Psychologists on the faculties of colleges and universities divide their time between teaching, research and administrative responsibilities, while some even choose to do consulting on the side.

The life of a psychologist, save for the occasional conference and the company of patients, is a solitary and studious one. They work alone, reading and writing reports and articles for trade journals. Although they set their own schedules, they are often under a great deal of time management pressure, while trying to juggle treating patients, doing research and writing all at once.

Psychologists without PhDs are limited in their career options. They can work as organizational or industrial psychologists, or work as psychological assistants under the supervision of doctorate holders, conducting research or psychological evaluations. A few work as school psychologists or guidance counselors, or teach in high schools and community colleges. For entry-level positions, the federal government employs non-doctoral candidates with 24 semester hours in psychology and a statistics course. Competition is stiff for these jobs, since they do not require an advanced degree. Vocational and guidance counselors generally need two years of graduate study and one year of counseling experience. Psychologists with PhDs qualify for a wide range of teaching, research, clinical and counseling positions in universities, elementary and secondary schools, private industry and government.

Psychologists with a Psy.D, or Doctor of Psychology, generally work in clinical positions. And those interested in becoming a school psychologist need look no further than an Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) degree. Earning a doctoral degree usually requires five to seven years of study; the PhD degree culminates in a dissertation based on original research. The Psy.D. is usually based on practical work and examinations rather than a scholarly dissertation. The doctoral degree generally requires at least a year of internship. Psychologists in independent practice and those who offer clinical patient care or counseling must meet certification or licensing requirements.

Clinical and counseling psychologists generally require a doctorate in psychology, completion of an approved internship, and one to two years of professional experience. In addition, most states require that applicants pass a standardized test. The American Board of Professional Psychology recognizes professional achievement by awarding certification, primarily in clinical psychology, clinical neuropsychology, counseling, forensic, industrial, organizational, and school psychology. Candidates need a doctorate in psychology, five years of experience, professional endorsements and a passing grade on an examination.

Public health administrator

Public health administrators are largely employed by government health agencies. Their focus is to educate members of communities on health issues while improving their health at the same time. The public health administrator leads outreach programs to reach the community on issues like outbreaks, sexual transmitted diseases, even lead poisoning.


A radiologist is a type of medical imaging specialist who specializes in diagnosing patients through x-rays and other radiation. Some radiology specialties include biopsies, pediatric radiology and oncology. Radiology technologists operate the equipment that produces the images.

Registered nurse 

The nursing profession is one of the most essential in the health care system and is the largest of the health occupations, with nurses numbering 2.5 million in 2006. Nurses provide constant bedside care, carry out doctors’ orders, administer preventive care, perform diagnostic tests - pretty much the bulk of what goes on in any medical setting. The beauty about this line of work is that nurses can specialize in anything ranging from neuroscience to nephrology and work in settings as varied as holistic practices and hospices. Job security in nursing is excellent and with a nationwide shortage, nurses are always in need. The only hitch is if you are entering into the profession it might be difficult to get into a nursing program since the shortage in nursing also extends to nursing faculty.

There are multiple pathways to become a nurse, which allows for different entry points. Nurses that enter a state-approved four-year baccalaureate program earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and have an easier chance specializing in their careers and advancing by becoming nurse practitioners. Nursing students get approximately two years of supervised clinical experience. Currently, there are approximately 674 baccalaureate programs in the nation. Students can also earn a two-year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) and many times go back to school to earn the BSN. A less common route, especially nowadays when nursing education is happening more in the university as opposed to the hospital setting, is getting a Diploma in Nursing from a hospital. The diploma route only comprised 4 percent of all basic RN education programs in 2006.

Nurses are in demand and are expected to have a 23 percent job growth through 2016, much faster than average for other occupations. As health care is trending toward patients receiving care in outpatient clinics rather than hospitals, the demand for nurses is rising there as well. The U.S. Department of Labor quotes the average RN salary as $62,480. Interestingly enough, the highest paying nursing industry is the film industry, with RNs banking more than $74,000—hey movie stars need nurses too! California pays its nurses the most, with RNs making on average $78,500 in the Golden State, with Massachusetts and Hawaii following right behind.


Sonographers operate ultrasonic imaging devices. These devices use high frequency waves to produce visual images of organs and tissues inside the body. The ending results are anatomical scans, videos and 3D pictures. To become a medical sonographer you must have a professional certification.

Sports Medicine

Those in sports medicine specialize in medical treatment of injuries that happen during a sports-related event or during exercise. Many of those who practice sports medicine are athletic trainers. Sports medicine specialists are different than sports medicine physicians who receive a special license to treat injuries. Sports medicine specialists focus on education and medical aspects of sports participation.


Surgeons are any doctor who performs surgeries. This can range from a podiatrist to dentist. Surgeries can also be specialized like cardiovascular surgery and reconstructive surgery.

Surgical technician

Surgical technicians assist surgeons in the operating room during surgeries. Many of their duties are about making sure tools in the operating room are clean to prevent contamination. Contamination in the operating room can be a matter of life and death for a patient. A surgical technicians duties include prepping and sterilizing the operating room, passing instruments to the operating surgeon and making sure the patient gets to and from the operating room safely.


Veterinarians care for the health of pets, livestock and animals in public places like zoos and racetracks. Admission into veterinarian school is difficult, but when finished graduates can expect ample job opportunities. Most veterinarians work in private practices and some work with physicians and research way to prevent human health problems.

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