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Health care is big business. The increasing demands for services, coupled with an aging population and new ways of doing business, are creating seemingly unlimited career potential for prospective students and current health care professionals. As an industry, health care is projected to see employment growth of 19 percent between 2014 and 2024, an increase of approximately 2.3 million jobs throughout the country. By 2024, more than 21 million individuals are expected to be working in health-related and social assistance occupations.

These occupations -- nearly 200 career pathways -- are divided between five main health sciences career clusters. Below is a list of the five health care clusters, with sample career avenues for each.

  1. Biotechnology Research and Development: Occupations focused on and involved in bioscience and biomedical research, studying diseases and development new devices, technologies, and treatments to provide patient care or improve diagnostic testing. (Examples: biostatistician, biomedical engineer)
  2. Diagnostic Services: Occupations dealing with the assessment, testing, diagnosis, and treatment of a variety of illnesses, diseases, injuries or other physical conditions. (Examples: radiologists, medical laboratory technician)
  3. Health Informatics: Occupations involved with administrative and data management, including financial and patient information. (Examples: epidemiologist, medical coder)
  4. Support Services: Occupations responsible for creating therapeutic environments for the delivery of health care services. (Examples: health care administrator, health care social worker)
  5. Therapeutic Services: Occupations focused on providing direct patient care, such as diagnosis and treatment, education, and counseling. (Examples: dental assistant, registered nurse)

Health Care Degree Programs

A unique industry, health care affords prospective students an extensive, diverse collection of both career- and academic-focused programs. This education can range from certificate programs that typically take six months to complete to multi-year doctoral degree programs. The amount of time required to complete a diploma or degree depends both on the academic award and the specific discipline. For example, the educational minimum requirement for a physician assistant is both a bachelor's and master's degree (six+ years of study), while a licensed vocational nurse may only need to complete a one-year diploma program.

Diploma Programs

Also known as a career diploma, these programs of study are typically technical or vocational in nature and provide students with industry- or occupation-specific training and education. Traditionally, diploma programs can be completed in as little as six to twelve months of study.

Example diploma careers (with 2015 median salaries):

  • Emergency medical technician ($35,430)
  • Licensed vocational nurse ($44,030)
  • Dental assistant ($36,920)

Associate Degree

The associate degree is commonly offered by community colleges, technical schools, as well as four-year private and public universities. As programs of study, associate degree programs are typically two years in length and are available in several formats for health care majors, including the Associate of Science (AS) and the Associate in Applied Science (AAS). The AS is an academic degree program that allows students to transfer their earned credits into a future bachelor's degree program. The AAS is an application-based program of study designed to prepare students for direct entry into a profession.

Example associate degree careers (with 2015 median salaries):

  • Medical coder ($40,430)
  • Registered nurse ($71,000)
  • Cardiovascular technologist ($56,100)

Bachelor's Degree

The bachelor's degree is an undergraduate program of study that typically requires four years of full-time study to complete, depending on the specific field of study. These programs are academic in nature, offering students a comprehensive curriculum divided between general education and major coursework in the specific health care discipline.

Example bachelor's degree careers (with 2015 median salaries):

  • Dietitian ($58,410)
  • Occupational therapist ($81,690)
  • Exercise physiologist ($49,740)

Master's Degree

The master's degree is a graduate level program of study designed to provide health care professionals with advanced training in their particular discipline or area of practice. Typically requiring between two and three years of study to complete, master's degree programs also may include clinical practicums and rotations that provide complementary real-world experience to classroom-based learning.

Example master's degree careers (with 2015 median salaries):

  • Physician assistant ($99,270)
  • Family nurse practitioner ($101,260)
  • Genetic counselor ($74,570)

Doctorate

The highest level of degree within health care, the doctorate is a complex program of study designed to prepare graduates to assume positions in clinical leadership, research, or academia. A wide-ranging degree, example doctorates include the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), the Doctor of Medicine (MD) and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

Example doctorate degree careers (with 2015 median salaries):

  • Physician ($202,450)
  • Oral surgeon ($233,900)
  • Podiatrist ($136,180)

Health Care Program Specializations

As noted above, health care degree and training programs are closely aligned to career pathways and curriculum is specific to the particular field of practice. For students considering a career in health care, deciding on an area of interest can be challenging. Below is an example list of the various types of health degree programs available to students:

  • Allied Health
  • Gerontology
  • Medical and Dental Assisting
  • Medical Billing
  • Nursing
  • Nutrition
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Physical Therapy
  • Radiologic Science
  • Respiratory Therapy
  • Ultrasound Technology

A review of graduation data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows the most popular fields of study included registered nursing, clinical nursing, and nursing administration, allied health, medical assisting and medical administrative services.

Health Care Career Outlook

The health care industry is full of opportunity. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 12 of the 20 fastest-growing occupations in the country from 2014 to 2024 are health related. Occupational therapy, physical therapy, allied health and ultrasound technology are a handful of programs with career paths projected to experience double digit career growth. Below is a list of a few of fastest-growing health care careers according to the BLS.

Occupation Degree Required Career Growth Avg. Salary Projected 2024 Employment
Home health aides Less than high school 38.1% $22,870 1,261,900
Physical therapy assistants Associate 40.6% $55,250 110,700
Occupational therapy assistants Associate 42.7% $58,340 47,100
Physical therapist aides High school degree or equivalent 39% $27,440 69,500
Genetic counselors Master's 28.8% $74,570 3,100
Physician assistants Master's 30.4% $99,270 123,200
Physical therapists Doctoral or professional degree 34% $85,790 282,700
Occupational therapy aides High school degree or equivalent 30.6% $31,090 11,600

Sources:

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, http://www.bls.gov/oes/
  • Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, US Health Care Spending Projections, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/NationalHealthExpendData/downloads/proj2012.pdf
  • ISEEK.org, Health Care Career Clusters, https://www.iseek.org/careers/pathways.html
  • National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds
  • ONET Online, Health Care Careers, https://www.onetonline.org/find/industry?i=62&g=Go

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