The healthcare industry offers many career opportunities that cater to a variety of skills and professional aptitudes. Some healthcare careers involve working directly with patients to diagnose, treat, and maintain their health, while others require managing patient information, billing, and/or administration.
This guide explores common healthcare careers and degree options. It also discusses employment opportunities by state and provides tips on launching your career.
Career Paths in Healthcare
Whether you want to work on the frontlines with patients or serve behind the scenes to help clinics run efficiently, the healthcare industry likely has a job to fit your career aspirations.
Each professional pathway offers specializations, which give you the opportunity to align your career with your strengths, passions, and interests. Some careers may require specific degrees or licenses, so it is important to research options carefully before going to school to ensure you select the right type of program.
Central healthcare disciplines include dentistry, healthcare administration, health services, nursing, and public health. Below, we discuss several common healthcare careers.
Dentistry professionals examine, diagnose, and treat a patient's teeth and gums. This field offers several different opportunities. Entry-level positions, such as dental assistants, only require an associate degree, but you must typically complete an undergraduate program and dental school to become a dentist or oral surgeon.
Gerontology focuses on the social, cultural, psychological, cognitive, and biological aspects of aging. A gerontologist typically works in research or clinical settings to treat patients. You need at least a bachelor's degree to work in this field, but career advancement may require further education.
Health informatics professionals ensure compliance with privacy standards, manage patient records, and process information requests. Entry-level positions typically require at least a bachelor's degree.
Health services professionals provide access to healthcare for patients. Available positions include scheduling, billing, nursing, and health services managers. Most entry-level positions require at least a bachelor's degree.
Healthcare administrators lead and manage healthcare systems. Some administrators run specific departments or whole facilities, such as hospitals or medical centers. You must typically hold a bachelor's to work in this field, but career advancement may require a graduate degree.
Nurses monitor and record a patient's health, check vitals, coordinate patient care with physicians, and educate patients about health conditions. Many nursing positions require at least a bachelor's degree and a license.
Professionals in this field focus on helping patients meet their health goals. Required tasks may include counseling, developing meal plans, and tracking patient progress. To qualify, you must hold a bachelor's degree in dietetics, foods and nutrition, clinical nutrition, or public health nutrition.
Public health careers focus on promoting and protecting the health of communities by implementing health initiatives and educating people about disease and injury prevention. Many positions require at least a bachelor's degree in health education, nursing, or a related field.
Radiology involves performing diagnostic imaging examinations using X-ray, CT, and MRI machines to help physicians diagnose and treat conditions. You must have at least an associate degree and licensure to qualify for entry-level positions.
Professionals in this field help patients improve their athletic performance, prevent injuries, and recover from injuries. Many sports medicine careers require you to complete a bachelor's program and medical school. You may also need to earn a license to practice.
Healthcare Career Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the number of jobs in healthcare will increase 14% between 2018 and 2028. This above-average growth rate makes pursuing a healthcare career a promising path worth considering.
Earnings vary by position and education level. According to the BLS, practitioners and technical workers earn a median annual salary of $68,190. A few careers in this field include registered nurse, physician, nutritionist, and athletic trainer. These positions typically require at least a bachelor's degree and a license.
Healthcare support occupations, such as medical transcriptionists, home health aides, respiratory therapists, and nursing aides, earn a median annual salary of $28,470. These roles may only require a high school diploma or an associate degree, but career advancement and earning potential may be limited if you do not continue your education.
Business Employment in Your State
Some states offer more lucrative healthcare opportunities than others. For example, Hawai'i offers the highest average annual salary for healthcare workers at $103,850, while Puerto Rico offers the lowest average annual salary at $36,280.
Both demand and cost of living greatly affect a worker's salary potential. The map below shows average salaries across the United States.
Source: The Kaiser Family Foundation
How to Start a Career in Healthcare
Before launching a career in healthcare you should establish your goals and area of interest. Healthcare offers several opportunities that require specific education requirements and skill sets.
For example, clinical positions require a strong command of biology, math, and interpersonal skills. Other positions, such as those in medical billing or transcription, may require organizational skills and strong attention to detail.
Entering the healthcare field typically requires at least an associate degree; however, you may need to pursue an advanced degree to qualify for career advancement opportunities.
Many positions, including registered nurses, laboratory technicians, and nutritionists, may require a bachelor's degree. Alternatively, becoming a physician requires additional time spent in medical school. Once you determine your area of interest, you can begin narrowing down your search for the right program.
Students can pursue a variety of careers with a healthcare degree, depending on their level of education. These may include entry-level roles and specialized positions that require a graduate-level education. Below, we detail the different degree types you can consider, as well as some positions you may qualify for at each degree level.
An associate degree typically takes two years to complete and prepares you for entry-level positions in healthcare. A few possible careers include medical assistant, dental assistant, radiology technician, and occupational therapy assistant.
Associate programs often include classes in clinical medical assisting, health information management, laboratory technology, and medical billing. The field of healthcare is vast, and each path requires specific skills. Therefore, associate programs often focus on a single career so that you receive the most relevant education.
Because programs typically cater to specific careers, curricula and requirements vary. Overall, an associate degree provides an introduction to key subjects and may include core courses in medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, microbiology, health information management, and pharmacology.
We offer several guides that provide an in-depth look at healthcare degree programs. If you want to pursue a career working directly with patients, the following guides may help: the best online associate in health science, associate in medical assisting, and associate in healthcare administration programs of 2020.
Earning a bachelor's degree in healthcare allows you to deepen your knowledge and may lead to career advancement opportunities and increased earning potential.
The average bachelor's degree requires 120 credits and typically takes four years to complete. Most schools offer online, in-person, and hybrid program options, allowing you to select the delivery method that best fits your schedule.
The components of a bachelor's degree vary depending on the discipline you choose. A few common program types include registered nursing, health information systems, healthcare management, and healthcare administration.
Many healthcare careers require licensure. You should ensure the program you choose prepares you for required examinations to increase your chances of success.
Curricula also vary, but a bachelor's degree in a healthcare field typically advances your knowledge in biochemistry, anatomy, organic chemistry, and pathophysiology. Many programs also offer internship opportunities.
A master's degree allows you to specialize your expertise by choosing a concentration. Master's degrees can also lead to advanced opportunities in healthcare practice or administration.
Graduate programs typically include an internship or capstone experience, allowing you to hone your clinical and/or research skills. Healthcare professionals who need a master's degree include prosthetists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and occupational therapists.
Requirements differ by discipline, but a master's degree typically takes two years to complete. If you plan to pursue nursing, required courses may include healthcare quality and improvement, biostatistics, advanced nursing concepts, and advanced pathophysiology. Health sciences programs may cover research methods, healthcare ethics, policy, and leadership.
If you plan to pursue an online degree but do not know what to look for in a program, explore our guide on top online schools to help you narrow down your choices.
Pursuing a doctorate requires a significant investment of time and money. Before researching programs, determine whether career growth in your field requires a terminal degree.
Jobs that may require a doctorate include audiologist, dentist, physician, surgeon, veterinarian, and optometrist. These positions come with more responsibility and command some of the highest salaries in the healthcare field.
Curricula and program length vary depending on the healthcare discipline you choose. On average, doctoral programs take 3-5 years to complete.
Required courses advance your specialized knowledge and develop strong research, laboratory, and leadership skills. Most programs also require participants to complete an extensive research project and defend a dissertation to graduate.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Earning a certification or license shows potential employers that you have the training, knowledge, and experience you need to excel. However, the decision to earn a certification or license may depend on the career you plan to pursue.
Many clinical positions require a license to practice. A few healthcare careers that require a license include doctor, nurse, therapist, and counselor.
Certifications are typically voluntary, but earning one allows you to develop your skills and/or pursue a specialization. Also, adding a certification to your credentials may increase your earning potential and give you an advantage over other candidates.
You can find more information about licenses and certifications for specific career paths by reviewing the following career guides: health informatics, health services, healthcare administration, and nursing careers. Licensure requirements vary by state, so check with your local state department of health to confirm requirements.
The decision to continue your education depends on the career path you choose. Some healthcare fields may require a bachelor's or graduate degree to advance your career, while other areas may place more value on experience.
Continuing your education allows you to deepen your knowledge, hone your skills, and specialize in a specific practice or field. However, an advanced degree is not always the only way to achieve this end.
For example, certificates or diplomas are sometimes a good way to gain additional skills. These programs typically take under a year to complete and add to your professional credentials without requiring you to invest in a long-term, expensive degree program.
Some careers in healthcare may require you to complete continuing education to maintain licensure. This process ensures you possess the relevant skills, training, and knowledge you need to practice effectively in your field.
Regardless of the position you hold, professional organizations can offer several benefits. Some organizations cater to all healthcare professionals, while others focus on specific disciplines.
Benefits of joining an organization include gaining access to networking opportunities, medical journals and other publications, and job listings. Some organizations also provide professional development opportunities and online courses, allowing you to continue learning and stay abreast of healthcare trends.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is healthcare a good career?
Healthcare offers both clinical and administrative positions with strong salary potential. If you are passionate about helping people be healthy, healthcare might make a good fit.
- How do I start a career in healthcare?
The best place to start is by establishing your career goals. Once you have established these goals, you can look for healthcare programs that align with your aspirations.
- What are the highest-paying jobs in healthcare?
Healthcare professionals at the pinnacle of their profession can earn over $200,000 annually. Particularly lucrative positions include surgeon, physician, podiatrist, dentist, and physician assistant.
- Is a healthcare degree worth it?
Even entry-level healthcare positions typically require at least some college education, so pursuing a degree is a worthwhile investment if you want to work in this field.