Healthcare refers to the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and management of physical and mental illnesses by medical professionals. A vast field, healthcare practice includes professionals in both the medical and allied health arenas, such as doctors, nurses, dieticians, pharmacists, occupational therapists, and phlebotomists. Healthcare careers also encompass various support occupations, including jobs like home health aides, health information technicians, and medical transcriptionists.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 14% growth within the industry between 2018 and 2028, leading to the addition of 1.9 million healthcare jobs. The aging American population is one of the chief reasons behind the industry's robust growth. As Americans get older, the need for healthcare services increases proportionately. In addition, a significant segment of current healthcare practitioners are approaching retirement age themselves, leaving room for a new generation of healthcare professionals to take their place.
A healthy economy also affects the demand for healthcare services. As more people find employment, they gain access to company health plans, increasing the demand for a variety of preventive health services. Recognizing the increasing need for healthcare professionals, more colleges and universities have begun to offer a variety of online and on-campus academic programs to meet the demand for qualified, well-trained healthcare professionals.
Healthcare Employment by State
The five most populous states in the country — California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania — also hire the most healthcare professionals, as the demand for healthcare services often correlates with population directly. Additional factors that affect healthcare employment include accessibility; affordability; availability of healthcare services; and socioeconomic indicators such as race, education, and income level.
Individuals who plan to pursue a health profession career should familiarize themselves with their state's healthcare employment statistics and regulations for certification and/or licensure. These factors can directly affect a worker's income, the types of healthcare fields with the most jobs available, and the growth trajectory of health professions.
Healthcare Employment Snapshot
Source: The Kaiser Family Foundation
Educational Paths to a Career in Healthcare
A student's level of education usually determines the type of healthcare jobs for which they qualify. Associate and bachelor's degrees typically open up entry-level employment, while a master's or doctorate often leads to higher positions with increased responsibility and higher wages. In some healthcare fields, nonacademic qualifications, including licensure and certification, can enhance your hiring potential. Factors such as work experience and physical mobility (or lack thereof) may also impact your suitability for certain healthcare jobs.
- Associate Degrees
It takes most full-time students two years to earn an associate degree in the healthcare field. If learners opt for an online program, they can often hold down a full-time job while pursuing their degree. Completing an associate degree gets students into the workforce quickly where they gain valuable on-the-job experience that can make them better qualified for better positions in the future. Most healthcare associate programs comprise 60 semester credits.
Students who choose to pursue an associate degree in the healthcare field reap several benefits. An associate program gives fresh high school graduates or professionals working in a non-healthcare field the chance to explore the healthcare arena without making a full, four-year commitment. Furthermore, students who earn their associate degree from an accredited institution can often transfer most of their credits toward a bachelor's program, should they decide to further their education.
Several healthcare jobs require only an associate degree, including pharmacy technicians, dental assistants, medical records and health information technicians, paramedics, and respiratory therapists. Some associate-level healthcare jobs also require licensure or certification, such as radiologic and MRI technologists, vocational nurses, and cardiovascular technicians. Healthcare jobs that require licensure in addition to an associate degree often offer higher salaries and greater job security.
- Bachelor's Degrees
For many students, the first step to a health profession career begins by earning a bachelor's degree in the healthcare field of their choice. A bachelor's can qualify graduates for many healthcare jobs that are not typically accessible to associate degree holders. Some of the jobs that require at least a bachelor's degree include biomedical engineers, medical and health services administrators, cytotechnologists, dieticians and nutritionists, and recreational therapists. Most states require licensure or further certification for healthcare professionals at this level, such as nurses, pharmacists, and cardiovascular perfusionists.
To meet the rising demand for healthcare professionals, several accredited schools now offer bachelor's programs in various healthcare fields on campus and online. Some online healthcare programs offer an accelerated schedule, making it possible for students to earn their degrees relatively quickly. Some programs offer asynchronous coursework or hybrid classes, while others follow a cohort model of education — this is especially common in nursing programs. Students who wish to earn a bachelor's degree in the healthcare field face no shortage of options when it comes to choosing a program that matches their needs and supports their goals.
In addition to qualifying graduates for many healthcare careers, an accredited bachelor's degree in healthcare serves as an excellent academic foundation for further studies in the field. Most master's programs require applicants to have a bachelor's degree and relevant work experience. A four-year degree equips graduates with the skill set and knowledge base needed to meet the demands of a master's program.
- Master's Degrees
Leadership positions in the healthcare field frequently require applicants to complete postgraduate studies and several years of professional experience. Healthcare master's programs provide career-focused training and instruction that go beyond the scope of a bachelor's degree. Some healthcare careers that allow professionals to establish a private practice require at least a master's-level education, often in addition to licensure and/or certification.
Healthcare jobs that require at least a master's degree include advanced practice registered nurses, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, genetic counselors, and epidemiologists. Additionally, some relatively new disciplines find applications in more than one health arena. For example, a master's degree in health informatics can be useful for nurses as well as dentists seeking to follow a career that spans the three fields of health informatics: business, healthcare, and technology.
Healthcare encompasses a broad array of disciplines that center on the prevention, treatment, and management of various illnesses — both physical and mental. Earning a master's degree in a healthcare field gives professionals the opportunity to focus on a specific aspect within this vast field of practice. A well-planned master's curriculum prepares graduates to meet and anticipate the challenges of the healthcare field
Many healthcare master's programs can be pursued online — some without any required campus visits. Keep in mind, however, that healthcare jobs often require hands-on training with the latest medical and/or technical equipment. Therefore, many programs have onsite components, even if the degree is offered online. Similar to master's programs in other disciplines, a healthcare master's usually comprises 30-50 semester credits and can be completed within two years by full-time learners.
- Doctoral Degrees
A terminal degree, a doctorate typically consists of 60-120 credits beyond a bachelor's degree. The length of time it takes to earn a doctorate largely depends on the number of credits a student completes each term. Most doctoral programs require that participants graduate within a certain timeframe; this usually ranges from 7-10 years.
A healthcare doctorate benefits professionals who wish to pursue a teaching career at the post-baccalaureate level. Colleges and universities usually require tenure-track candidates to have a doctoral degree, and healthcare practitioners in private practice also need a doctorate to engage in their profession. Additionally, top healthcare positions (e.g., hospital administrators) and highly specialized fields (e.g., genetics and molecular science) typically require candidates to have the highest degree in their field.
Some professions support two kinds of doctoral programs: a practice-based program and a researched-focused degree. For example, doctoral nursing programs may award a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) or a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in nursing. Both degrees represent the highest level of learning in the nursing field, but they are quite distinct. DNP programs focus on nursing practice, while Ph.D. tracks emphasize research. Nursing Ph.D. programs require degree candidates to write a dissertation that adds to the existing body of knowledge in the field, whereas DNP candidates complete a demanding practice-based project
A few healthcare doctorates can be pursued online, although these are rare. Most institutions offer their healthcare doctoral programs on campus or as a hybrid program.
Career Paths in Healthcare
As stated above, the BLS projects the healthcare industry to experience 14% growth between 2018 and 2028. With the creation of 2.4 million jobs in the field, graduates of accredited healthcare programs at virtually every level can expect to enter a healthy professional market. The following sections present different types of healthcare jobs requiring varying levels of education.
Some healthcare jobs, such as medical office administration and medical coding, only require workers to complete a certificate program or earn an associate degree. Other healthcare areas, such as nursing and public health, offer opportunities for healthcare professionals with a certificate or an associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree. As varied and extensive as the health profession careers discussed below might seem, they represent only a portion of the professional opportunities in the healthcare industry.
Clinical researchers translate the results of laboratory experiments and basic research on health and illness into new treatment protocols that benefit patients and/or advance a specific field of study. A master's program teaches students how to conduct clinical trials and interpret results.
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A certificate program in dental assistance prepares students to provide chair-side support and patient care as dentists perform various dental procedures. Dental assistants can also take on administrative duties and complete corollary dental procedures, such as taking dental impressions and coronal polishing.
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Emergency management provides a framework for federal agencies and local governments to follow during emergency scenarios, including preparation, response, and recovery. An EMT program prepares students to provide quick and effective emergency medical care, prevent further injury, and mitigate disaster consequences.
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Gerontology is the study of the aging process. A career as a gerontologist can span diverse fields that include social work, nursing, occupational and physical therapy, and psychology. Students can pursue a gerontology program at the certificate, associate, bachelor's, and master's levels.
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Health science encompasses several disciplines that focus on improving the quality of patient care across the lifespan. Students can pursue a variety of professions, depending on their level of education and health science concentration.
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Healthcare administrators handle the day-to-day operations of a healthcare facility, including staffing needs and personnel training. They familiarize themselves with the different treatment options their facility offers to make sure they hire professionals with the necessary experience and training to deliver those services.
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A relatively new field, health informatics uses information technology to organize and evaluate diverse health information to enhance the quality and delivery of healthcare services and improve healthcare outcomes. The scope of these jobs vary and usually depend on an individual's education and place of employment.
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Healthcare management often includes policy making, accounting procedures, and facilities management. Although healthcare managers rarely come in direct contact with patients, their work can have a significant impact on the quality and delivery of patient care. Because they often oversee a varied network of services and procedures, healthcare managers must have at least a bachelor's degree and many of these workers opt to obtain an advanced degree.
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A health services program provides students with general knowledge about various health and applied science disciplines. Students typically choose a specialization area toward the end of their program, picking from fields like mental health counseling and emergency services management.
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Medical coding refers to the process of translating medical information into alphanumeric codes for the purposes of documenting medical diagnoses and ensuring accurate medical billing. Most students qualify to assume this position after on-the-job training and completing a relevant certificate program.
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Medical Office Administration
Medical office administration typically covers the clerical and support tasks required in medical offices, insurance companies, and private practices. A certificate program in the field provides students with an overview of the industry and includes coursework in medical terminology, insurance coverage, and medical billing.
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An allied health profession, medical assisting often covers administrative and clinical tasks that are carried out to help doctors, dentists, and other medical professionals in their practices. The scope of a medical assistant's duties largely depends on their training and education level.
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Focused primarily on patient care, the nursing profession plays a vital role in the prevention and treatment of illnesses and injuries. Nursing practice encompasses several medical specialization areas and includes health policy formulation, health systems management, and wellness education.
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RN-to-BSN Bridge Programs
Designed for registered nurses who already hold an associate in nursing, an RN-to-BSN program provides additional training and instruction that helps nurses deliver better patient care. It also qualifies nurses for managerial positions and can lead to higher salaries.
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Nurse practitioners — who serve as advanced practice registered nurses — can assess patient needs and conditions, diagnose illnesses, order tests, and formulate treatment plans, often without direct doctor supervision. Because of the scope of their responsibilities, nurse practitioners need to have at least a master's degree in their field of expertise.
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Nursing administrators have varying responsibilities depending on their place of employment; however, common tasks include policy planning, financial and human resources management, interdepartmental coordination, and contract negotiations. Most medical facilities require nursing administrators to have at least a master's degree.
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A degree in nutrition sciences can lead to careers in health and wellness industries, food production, and agriculture. Graduates — especially those with postsecondary degrees — can work as nutritionists and dieticians in hospitals or conduct independent research as food science technicians.
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The health education field requires practitioners to develop, implement, and evaluate health programs and wellness strategies that promote the well-being of individuals and communities. Practitioners within this field help their clients access health services and information. They also advocate for improved healthcare policies and increased health facilities.
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A human services program prepares professionals to help clients overcome major life challenges and setbacks by working through various outreach and community organizations. Human services professionals usually work alongside practitioners such as doctors, social workers, and police officers. Schools now offer human services programs at the certificate, associate, baccalaureate, and post-baccalaureate levels.
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Public health professions focus on improving and conserving the health and well-being of large populations through disease prevention, providing clean water, disaster relief, improving access to healthcare, and much more. Public health professionals often need at least a bachelor's degree in the field, although leadership positions may require an advanced degree.
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Radiology technicians administer radiation therapy treatments and perform diagnostic imaging examinations. The profession requires at least a bachelor's degree. Students may pursue specialization areas such as cardiac-interventional radiography, magnetic resonance imaging, and bone densitometry.
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Respiratory therapists assess and treat patients suffering from cardiopulmonary system dysfunction. A bachelor's degree provides these therapists with the skills and training they need to assist patients with conditions like cystic fibrosis, emphysema, pneumonia, or asthma.
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Sports medicine focuses on injury prevention and performance enhancement for individuals who routinely engage in rigorous physical activity. Sports medicine professionals also help injured patients regain full function and/or maximize their mobility. The field requires practitioners to hold at least a master's degree.
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Meet a Healthcare Professional
Sherif El-Refai, PharmD, MBA
PhD Candidate at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy
- Please summarize your academic and professional experience.
I am a pharmacist by training (PharmD), and in pursuit of a career as a translational scientist.
The PharmD gave me an appreciation for direct patient care and the essential role pharmacists play on the healthcare team. I pursued an MBA to gain an understanding of how the pharmaceutical industry works and how research is managed.
Currently, I am at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy pursuing my PhD in pharmaceutical sciences to conduct research that pushes forward the treatment of cancer.
- What type of person would excel in pharmaceuticals?
I believe that a student who is independent, ambitious, and manages their well time can go very far in this field. Same goes with a person who is independent enough to complete work on their own yet collaborative enough to seek out potential partners in research.
I feel lucky to be at UK as the NCI-designated Markey Cancer Center and the College of Pharmacy are deeply intertwined and allow me to interact with clinicians on a regular basis allowing the research to move forward readily.
- What do you find most fulfilling about the path you've chosen?
A translational scientist's job is to push the boundaries of the medical field and ensure that it can affect patients directly. It is fulfilling to know that the work I am doing today will improve cancer care on a national and international basis.
The days when your experiments confirm your hypothesis on the biology of cancer provide an inexplicable feeling of joy and that fortify my resolve in pursuing this career path.
- What's your greatest day-to-day challenge?
Research is a largely collaborative process that involves many people and many moving parts. In other institutions, where research departments and hospital staff are isolated, it can be difficult to build the team necessary to complete your proposal. However, in an institution like UK, where there are interdisciplinary seminars, grants and practices, it has been largely streamlined.
- What additional advice can you give to someone pursuing a career in pharmaceuticals?
Along the road, you may experience setbacks. Grants may not be fulfilled, papers may be rejected, or collaborators may leave your institution, but it is important to remember why you are doing this in the first place and maintain your determination.
Professional Resources for Healthcare Majors
Healthcare Job Boards:
A job board network maintained by the American Hospital Association, the Health Career Center connects top healthcare employers with healthcare professionals in various disciplines. The site also features several professional development tools and career-building resources.
This website allows job seekers to create a personal job search request through the JobAgent tool, which automatically informs users of relevant job openings. Healthcare professionals can also read company profiles and monitor the number of times their resume has been viewed.
This site features a job board encompassing numerous locations across the country, including NHC health centers, NHC rehab locations, and NHC home care.
This aggregate site features jobs in nearly every healthcare specialty. It helps match healthcare companies with healthcare workers.
Recruiting for a 40-system healthcare network concentrated in the east coast and the tri-state area, this site features online job postings. It allows job seekers to apply in person or by mail.
Continuing Education for Healthcare Careers:
This site features continuing education opportunities for professionals in nearly every healthcare specialty with courses credentialed by national medical boards.
ACEHP features information on credentialing exams and certification requirements of different specialties, as well as information on events, workshops, and grant opportunities for healthcare workers.
Job seekers can access live seminars and interactive continuing education events for nurses and those employed in other healthcare jobs who are looking to maintain their certification.
This site offers affordable courses for physicians, dentists, nurses, social workers, and other healthcare specialists looking for continuing education opportunities. Students may receive up to 15 credits per course in some cases.
Professionals can access a variety of continuing education opportunities as well as numerous learning tools for healthcare workers. They can also take advantage of in-person enrichment opportunities by attending the AHRQ annual conference.
Professional Organizations for Healthcare Careers:
Founded in 2013, this organization aims to develop the most critical professional areas in the healthcare field by expanding professional resources and standardizing high-quality patient care.
In addition to posting employment opportunities for satellite offices around the world, this site offers extensive information on careers related to policy reform and emergency healthcare services.
Including roughly 25 participating healthcare facilities and organizations, members of NUHW can explore topics in healthcare reform and job trends. Individuals can join or renew their membership online.
AFSCME oversees a division that is dedicated to healthcare workers in all fields and specialties. Its website includes resources for nurses, home health workers, and other healthcare professionals, including downloadable policy and regulations forms and a virtual network of healthcare employees.
Administered through the U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA works to maintain safe working conditions for professionals by setting and enforcing standards. The organization also provides outreach, education, and training.