How To Start A Career In Health Care

Beyond doctors and nurses, the health professions offer a wide variety of career paths, with educational requirements ranging from one to six years.

A career in the health professions can be great for anyone who likes people and has dreamed of being in a well-paid, always in-demand profession. When many people think of health care, they think only of doctors and nurses, but in reality there are a myriad of options, from nurse's aid to physician's assistant, with a wide variety of responsibilities and educational requirements. You probably know that to become a doctor it takes four years of college, four years of medical school, and several more years of residency. But there are many other ways to help people, and if you're interested in a health career without medical school, this article will explain what some of the options are, moving from the lowest to the greatest educational requirements, and how to get started. You can train for most of the fields below at your local community college, which can also probably help you find a position when you graduate.

Certified Nursing Assistant

A CNA, or Certified Nursing Assistant, works in a support role for nurses in a hospital, nursing home, other health facility, or a patient's home. The duties center on patients' non-medical physical needs, such as dressing, feeding, and toileting. While the pay CNAs receive is lower than other health professions, the training is not long or costly. Courses are available at community colleges, but many facilities offer their own courses, free of charge or even with pay, to new hires. No special prerequisites are required. The courses can run from a brief two-week program at a healthcare facility to a six-month community college program, and are followed by a certification exam. Becoming a CNA can be an end in itself, or a way to work in the health field while you pursue further education.

Licensed Practical Nurse and Other Diploma Specialties

An LPN can work in any healthcare setting, in a variety of specialties, under the supervision of a Registered Nurse or physician; an LPN's role is more medical than that of a CNA, but more limited than that of an RN. LPN programs, offered at community colleges, typically last one year. Once you have obtained an LPN, many schools offer programs that will allow you to complete an associate's degree and earn an RN.

A number of other "certificate" programs leading to jobs in hospitals and doctors' offices are available. The best way to find out what might interest you is to contact your local community college, and find out what programs are offered.

Medical Assistant and Other Associate Degree Specialties

Medical Assistants work in doctors' offices at mixed administrative and medical tasks, from scheduling appointments to taking medical histories and drawing blood. They have completed a specialized associate degree program, which can last from one to two years and generally includes an internship component. A graduate of an accredited medical assistant program can complete a certification exam to become a CMA, or certified Medical Assistant, and gain a professional edge.

Programs available at the associate's degree level vary in the content of the coursework, and there is a wide choice of occupations, including Medical Assistant, Occupational Therapy Assistant, Physical Therapy Assistant, and Medical Laboratory Technician. Again, contact your local community college to find out which field most interests you.



Registered Nurse

RNs work under the supervision of physicians in all healthcare settings in all specialties. Becoming an RN requires a two-year associate degree, including a higher number of specialized science courses than the associate programs mentioned above. In addition to good pay, an advantage of the RN is that there is virtually limitless room for advancement. You can increase your salary by earning a bachelor's degree, and by earning a master's degree you could specialize further or become a nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, or nurse-midwife. You can work at a well-paying job, with day or night, weekday or weekend hours, while you continue to pursue education and advance yourself.

Physician's Assistant

Physician's Assistants, not to be confused with Medical Assistants, perform many of the same tasks that physicians perform. Under the supervision (sometimes remotely) of a physician, they examine patients, diagnose illnesses and injuries, set broken bones, stitch cuts, and, in most states, can prescribe medication. Becoming a PA requires much more education than getting started in allied health or nursing; you must first earn a bachelor's degree, meeting certain science and math prerequisites, and then enter a PA program, which generally runs for two years.

Nurse Practitioner

Like physician's assistants, nurse practitioners examine and treat patients under a doctor's supervision, but they come from a nursing background. The difference lies more in the preparation than in the duties or the length of education. A new high school graduate could earn a CNA, perhaps while still in high school, to earn the money for an LPN, work as an LPN to pay for an RN, and work as an RN while earning a master's degree for further advancement. By contrast, the route to becoming a PA must be more direct.

A master's degree in nursing can also prepare you to become a nurse anesthetist, a very well-paid, highly sought-after position. These nurses administer anesthesia, under physician supervision, to patients undergoing surgery. Another option is to become a Certified Nurse-Midwife. Most midwives work in hospitals, but some work in freestanding birth centers or attend at home births.

Ready to Get Started?

If you have a high school diploma, your local community college is your best resource for learning more about what health programs are available, which is the best match for your skills and interests, and which are most sought-after in your area. Because most of these professions are in high demand, completing a program can also be your ticket to geographic mobility.

If you already have some post-secondary education and are contemplating a career change, first look for programs specifically designed for that situation. For instance, if you have a bachelor's degree and have met certain science prerequisites, you may be able to enroll right away in a physician's assistant program, or in a special master of science in nursing program, offered at many universities, for students with bachelors' degrees in other fields. If you do not have the prerequisites, you can take additional courses before enrolling. But don't be afraid to simply start over. If you have a bachelor's degree, enrolling in an associate's degree health program might seem like a step down, but you might actually be able to earn more money, and find a career that's more rewarding in other ways as well.

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