An Introduction to Careers in Allied Health

by April Karbowsky
An Introduction to Careers in Allied Health

Ask anyone to name a provider of healthcare and they will usually reply "doctor" and then "nurse" without even thinking. What people typically don't think about are the myriad of other positions in healthcare that are integral to supporting the functions of physicians, nurses, and the healthcare system in general.

These other positions fall into a category of healthcare providers called "allied health professionals" and individuals taking on careers in this field require as much dedication, compassion, and competency as do those who have become doctors or nurses.

Without many of these workers, the overall level of healthcare provided to patients would be incomplete. Instead of placing doctors and nurses at the top of a hierarchy in healthcare, they could be considered as the hub of a wheel with all of the allied healthcare providers acting as spokes that enable the wheel to spin.

Healthcare Providers

The term "healthcare provider" encompasses many things. If refers to the delivery of medical services by individuals such as doctors, nurses, physician's assistants, midwives, home health aids, and other specialists who perform their jobs on a one-on-one basis with patients. These positions are generally referred to as the "allied health" professions and number in the hundreds. Allied health jobs are key support positions in the diagnosis and management of injuries and illness. Also found within this group are jobs that pertain more to the business and record keeping aspects of private practices, and some that involve working for laboratories or insurance companies in the medical billing and coding areas.

According to the Association of Schools of Allied Health Professionals (ASAHP), allied health professionals are "involved with the delivery of health or related services pertaining to the identification, evaluation and prevention of diseases and disorders; dietary and nutrition services; rehabilitation and health systems management, among others. Allied health professionals, to name a few, include dental hygienists, diagnostic medical sonographers, dietitians, medical technologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, radiographers, respiratory therapists, and speech language pathologists."

Just some of the over 100 career titles are as follows:

  • Anesthesiologist Assistant
  • Cardiovascular Technologist
  • Cytotechnologist
  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
  • Electroneurodiagnostic Technologists
  • EMT - Paramedic
  • Exercise Physiologist
  • Health Information Administrator
  • Health Information Technologist
  • Kinesiotherapist
  • Massage Therapist
  • Medical Assistant
  • Medical Illustrator
  • Ophthalmic Medical Technician/Technologist
  • Othotist/Prosthetist
  • Perfusionist
  • Respiratory Therapist
  • Surgical Assistant

The Healthcare Industry & Job Outlook

Healthcare is an integral part of the economy in the United States. According to the article "It's the Price, Stupid: Why the United States Is So Different from Other Countries" published in the May/June2003 issue of Health Affairs, in the year 2000, 13 percent of the GNP of the United States was attributed to healthcare costs paid to hospitals, doctors, pharmacies, laboratories, and medical devices.

Several factors are currently affecting the healthcare industry:

  • The United States has a large aging population and with this comes a greater demand for health services.
  • Stricter regulations presented by the government on health maintenance organizations (HMOs), hospitals, insurance companies, and private practices, are requiring American businesses that deal with healthcare to revamp their business practices just to keep up.
  • The healthcare industry is being positively influenced by new advances in medical technology.

Put these together and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "healthcare and social assistance-including private hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities, and individual and family services-will grow by 32.4 percent and add 4.4 million new jobs."

Examples of positions currently experiencing such growth include the following*:

Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians

  • Job opportunities are expected to be excellent, because the number of job openings is expected to continue to exceed the number of job seekers.
  • Median annual earnings of medical and clinical laboratory technologists were $42,910 in 2002. The middle 50 percent earned between $36,400 and $50,820.

Medical Assistants

  • Projected to be the fastest growing occupation over the 2002-12 period.
  • Median annual earnings of medical assistants were $23,940 in 2002.

Medical Records and Health Information Technicians

  • Employment of medical records and health information technicians is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2012, due to rapid growth in the number of medical tests, treatments, and procedures that will be increasingly scrutinized by third-party payers, regulators, courts, and consumers.
  • Median annual earnings of medical records and health information technicians were $23,890 in 2002.

Radiologic Technologists and Technicians

  • Job opportunities are expected to be favorable. Some employers report difficulty hiring sufficient numbers of radiologic technologists and technicians. Imbalances between the demand for, and supply of, qualified workers should spur efforts to attract and retain qualified radiologic technologists and technicians. As an example of such efforts, employers may provide more flexible training programs or improve compensation and working conditions.
  • Median annual earnings of radiologic technologists and technicians were $38,970 in 2002

*Information provided by U.S. Department of Labor - Bureau of Labor Statistics

Actual Work

With the diversity of professions found in allied health, the day-to-day work varies depending on each specialty and even the work environments can be very dissimilar.

Some positions require individuals to deal directly with patients on different levels. They may be required to draw blood, take an x-ray, perform a sonogram, or simply take down a patient's history and help fill out forms. This may be done in a hospital, doctor's office, laboratory, or special facility devoted to patient testing.

Other jobs, such as a Medical Coding Specialist, have absolutely no patient contact what-so-ever. These specialists have an understanding of medical terminology, like the people in the professions listed previously, but use this knowledge solely to code insurance documents in an environment that is more like a standard office than that of a hospital or lab.

To find more informative descriptions of an allied health field that you may be interested in, you can visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website "Health Technologists, Technicians, and Healthcare Support Occupations," where you can access their book which gives very detailed expectations and assessments for over 20 job types. You can also use the top level of the BLS website to find allied health fields not covered in the PDF document listed above. Topics covered in both sites include the nature of work, employment outlook, working conditions, training and accreditation needed, job outlook, earnings, related occupations, and sources for additional information.

Education

Educational requirements for allied health jobs vary by the type of position you desire and the time you are willing to put into completing your education. Some programs require several years of education, while others can be completed in approximately two years. In many cases, on the job experience in the form of an internship or clinical field work must be completed to meet requirements for graduation. In addition, many allied health positions require that professional accreditation and/or board exams must have been satisfactorily completed for employment.

It is important to know that most positions in allied health require employees to continually remain educated about their field in order to keep up with current practices and ensure that proper healthcare levels are being met. For example, the field of Radiology has changed greatly over the last several years due to advances in technology. Diane Hoenshel, a Registered Technologist of Radiology (R.T.R) in Pittsburgh, PA said: "Originally when I started, about 20 years ago, radiology was made up of plain x-rays and nuclear medicine. Now, because of technology, for example, it can be broken down to x-rays, nuclear medicine, nuclear cardiology, spiral CT scanning, PET scanning, MRIs, and ultrasound, among others. I need to keep getting continuing education credits (24 in two years) before I am allowed to renew my license."

Choosing a School

It's important to make several considerations when choosing which school or program to enroll in:

  • Be sure to look for a manageable class size with a good ratio of students to teacher - the more students, the less time a teacher has to spend with an individual if extra assistance is needed.
  • Look at the credentials of the people teaching the classes. Are they employed solely as educators, or do they teach part-time and have current hands-on experience in the field? When teachers are actively involved in the profession outside of a classroom environment, the quality of information being brought back to students can be more current and accurate.
  • Ask if faculty members are involved in research or scholarly publishing. The more involved they are with either of these aspects, the better the chance of being introduced to new concepts and plans for the future of the professions.
  • A major part of learning the skills for jobs in allied health are associated with hands-on participation in the form of internships (also called "externships' or "clinical" field experience). Schools should have the ability to provide you with pre-arranged internships, or be able to assist you in finding ones for yourself. When considering a school's internship or clinical opportunity, you need to consider how long it will take to complete, what the hours are, and whether it is paid or unpaid. Your personal lifestyle, coupled with the time that you feel you need to take to complete a program of study will help determine if a school's internship requirements can be met. If not, you may have to get permission from the school to create your own internship that can be worked around your needs.
  • Ensure that classes (and clinicals in particular) will be taught in state-of-the-art facilities. With so many changes in technology, learning on equipment that is already several years out-of-date is a poor decision.

For more general information, the American Medical Association has a wonderful site geared towards assisting individuals with selecting a school to attend. The information on this site is derived from their annual directory "Health Professions Career and Education Directory (HPCED)" and includes links to accrediting agencies.

Accredited Schools & Programs

It is important to know if the program being pursued is accredited, and by which agency, when selecting an educational source. Typically, allied health specialties have employment requirements that are contingent upon graduation from specific accredited programs in order to sit for licensure, certification, registry exams, or for actual work in the profession.

According to The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), the largest programmatic accreditor in the health services field, "accreditation is an effort to assess the quality of institutions, programs and services, measuring them against agreed-upon standards and thereby assuring that they meet those standards.

There are two types of accreditation in post-secondary education: programmatic (or specialized) and institutional. Programmatic accreditation is concerned with examining the quality of education provided by a program itself - as opposed to the institution's quality. Generally, professionals involved in given fields develop standards by which to measure a program's requirements, and these standards are reflective of what knowledge and skills a person needs to know in order to work in that profession.

Institutional accreditation, such as that done by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCST), looks at schools as a whole to determine if they have met minimum standards set for their programs in addition to their facilities, resources, faculty, and staff administrators.

You can find more information about accreditation requirements for allied health fields by looking at websites for professional associations for the specialty you are interested in. The American Medical Association site "Allied Health Professional Associations" is a good representative example. In addition, the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools can assist in determining if a school you are interested in has the accreditation credentials needed to be recognized by future employers.

Cost of Education

Programs in allied health are offered by various institutions - from career schools and hospital-based training programs, to major colleges and universities. Educational costs will vary depending on your chosen field, the type of schooling you choose, and the length of the program.

For individuals who want to get trained in one specific area of allied health and then get out and working in the field as quickly as possible, the benefits of attending a career school or hospital-based training program can't be beat - plus the cost of these programs is quite different than those found within university or college-based programs. According to the report "Allied Health Education in Two-Year Colleges", provided by the American Medical Association in 2003, "the average cost of a two-year associate degree program in an allied health field for an 'in-resident' student is less than $5,000."

Many of these schools consider courses in general studies (i.e.: English and math) as prerequisites to entry into a program, which leaves individuals free to concentrate their studies on subject areas that are pertinent to their field of choice, such as medical terminology, human anatomy, principles of patient care, ultrasound physics, medical law and ethics, physiology, clinical chemistry, immunology, etc. This focused approach, in addition to time spent in a clinical environment, provides students with a high-quality education in a short period of time.

Though allied health programs can be found at colleges and universities, they are usually designed for individuals who want to use their education and experience for careers in allied health in a different manner - such as becoming managers, educators, or researchers in their field, instead of being involved in a hands-on manner with patients. Although a higher degree is obtained (usually starting with a Bachelor's degree), these programs cost more and take more time to complete. As an example, Quinnipiac University's Diagnostic Imaging program "requires four years to complete with the freshman year spent on core courses, including biology, chemistry, and math; clinicals are done in both the sophomore and junior years in private offices and hospitals, private radiology groups and orthopedic groups; and the senior year is spent studying advanced modalities like MRIs, ultrasound, and CT" according to Bill Hennessy, Director of Clinical Education. The annual cost for this program is $21,540 without room and board.

Financial Aid

Financial assistance is available through traditional sources, such as school sponsored work-study programs, grants, or loans; scholarships; and state or government-sponsored scholarship or financial aid programs. Usually a school presents information about its own financial assistance options during the interview process. If you prefer methods of funding other than those offered by the school, or need aid in addition to the amount being offered, you should look into the other options discussed above.

Scholarships for allied health students can be found through a variety of sources. Fastweb.com, a very thorough and easy to use site, lets you enter your personal information (desired career path, current education level, GPA and SAT scores, school awards, extracurricular activities, etc.) then selects traditional scholarships, grants and fellowships, and even scholarship sweepstakes and contests based on matches made to information in your profile.

Professional associations related to an allied health specialty also are good sources for finding financial aid. Associations of Allied Health Professionals is a good starting point for this type of research.

Some states that are facing a crisis in staffing levels for specific allied health professions offer funding in the form of financial aid or scholarships. Information can be found by accessing the state's website and checking the links for educational resources or searching for "scholarships".

A good source for finding more information on federal funding is through the Princeton Review which includes a link to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and has information about how family and/or parental financial contributions play into financial aid determination.

In addition to traditional loans and financial aid, people entering school for training in the allied health professions are being offered some very enticing funding options, mostly due to the severe shortage of workers in this area. Many employers work with schools to line up jobs for individuals upon graduation and provide funding incentives to these individuals. Incentives can include tuition assistance or scholarships, usually predicated on the agreement that the student will work for the establishment for a certain period of time after graduation (a minimum is usually one year of service per semester paid for). Signing bonuses are not uncommon.

Finding a Job

Because allied health professionals in the United States are highly in demand, finding employment may not be too difficult. Things to consider when selecting jobs to apply for include the job's setting, the size of the organization, its status as a profit or non-profit institute (pay scale can be less at a non-profit), benefits, requirements for mandatory overtime, typical working hours, and pay scale. Health Professions Salary Ranges lists some of the better known allied health specialties and their associated salaries. In addition, many career-related sites offer salary calculators to help you better find what a job should pay based on the geographical area you work in and on your educational and professional skill level.

Ways to look for jobs include:

  • school's career development office
  • websites for professional associations; hospitals, laboratories, and medical centers; medically-based staffing agencies and recruiters; general health-related sites; and career websites (look for ones geared toward health or medical professions)
  • state and federal government websites

As was discussed previously, many employers actively recruit students while they are in school and offer incentives (tuition reimbursement, signing bonuses, loan repayment, etc.) for an agreement of future employment for specific periods of time. Contacting a school's career development office can provide you with possible options to explore. Some arrangements require students to take their clinical at an institution with a guarantee of employment upon successful graduation. Career development offices also have up-to-date listings for many jobs in the community that are not posted anywhere else, so it is wise to check with them for opportunities as your graduation date nears. They also arrange for on-campus interviews or career fairs for groups of employers, so it is wise to keep informed of when these events may be scheduled.

Websites offer a fabulous and relatively easy way to enhance a job search. Many positions are posted on these sites that do not get publicized by any other manner, plus most sites offer individuals the opportunity to post a resume and sign up for email notification of new listings as they are input to the site's system. Some examples include the National Institute of Health, American Society for Clinical Pathology, Association of Surgical Technologists, AlliedHealthJobs.com, HealthcareSource.com, 4AlliedHealthJobs.com, and JobBank USA.

Conclusion

Working as an allied health professional can be a self-rewarding and well-paying career choice for many individuals. It requires dedication both in training and later in on-the-job performance. The benefit of this dedication is that allied health professionals are then allowed plenty of mobility as opportunities for better positions present themselves - as these are currently some of the most highly in-demand employees across the United States.

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