What Is Healthcare? A Complete Guide to Healthcare Degrees and Careers

Pharmacist leaning against a shelf in a pharmacy

What Is Healthcare Exactly?

Healthcare is an industry centered on providing medical care to communities and individuals. It generally involves encouraging healthy lifestyles, conducting preventative care, diagnosing ailments, and providing medications and treatments.

There are a variety of healthcare degrees and educational paths to choose from. You can begin a healthcare career with just a certificate or dedicate eight-plus years to a medical degree.

Healthcare encompasses dentistry, surgery, pediatrics, anesthesiology, administration, pharmaceuticals, counseling, and even veterinary medicine. It’s one of the broadest fields, with tons of opportunities for you to help and serve others.

What Types of Healthcare Programs Are There?

Have a passion for helping others? There are many healthcare degrees available.

Whether you prefer to work directly with patients in a role like dentistry or nursing or work behind the scenes in healthcare management or medical billing, there’s a place in healthcare for you.

1. Dental Hygiene

  • Degree Options: Associate degree
  • Program Length: 3 years
  • Accreditors: Commission on Dental Accreditation

A dental hygiene program prepares you for a career as a dental hygienist. You’ll learn to provide cleaning and preventive care to patients, look for signs of oral diseases, and perform X-rays.

It takes about three years to become a dental hygienist with an associate degree and licensure. If you wish to advance in your career, you can pursue a bachelor’s degree to qualify for management positions.

There are many scholarships and financial aid resources available to dental hygiene students.

2. Dentistry

  • Degree Options: Doctor of medicine in dentistry (DMD), doctor of dental surgery (DDS)
  • Program Length: 4 years + 2-4 years in residency
  • Accreditors: Commission on Dental Accreditation

Becoming a dentist typically takes 6-8 years of school and residency experience. Dentists help people maintain healthy oral hygiene by conducting cleanings and filling cavities. They also diagnose diseases related to the teeth and gums.

Prospective dentists can specialize in oral surgery, endodontics, orthodontics, periodontics, anesthesiology, or pediatrics.

3. Diagnostic Medical Sonography

  • Degree Options: Certificate/diploma, associate degree
  • Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Accreditors: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools

Diagnostic medical sonography programs prepare students to become ultrasound technicians. In this program, you’ll learn about sonography, ultrasound scanning, anatomy, and diagnosis.

To advance your career in sonography, you can complete a certification or earn a degree.

4. Dietetics and Nutritional Sciences

  • Degree Options: Certificate/diploma, associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctorate
  • Program Length: Varies
  • Accreditors: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics

Choosing a degree or certificate in dietetics and nutritional sciences will qualify you for careers like nutritionist, dietitian, sports nutritionist, public health professional, and health educator.

Students learn about the science behind food and nutrition, how to build meal plans and diets, how to use food to treat illnesses, and how to communicate all of this information to others.

5. Healthcare Administration and Management

  • Degree Options: Certificate/diploma, associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctorate
  • Program Length: Varies
  • Accreditors: Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education, Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools

With a healthcare administration and management degree, you’ll learn to manage and operate a variety of healthcare facilities. You’ll take courses like healthcare policy, health economics, current issues in healthcare administration, and leadership in healthcare.

Students can choose from a variety of degrees or certificates to enter the field.

6. Health Informatics

  • Degree Options: Certificate/diploma, associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctorate
  • Program Length: Varies
  • Accreditors: Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education

In a health informatics career, you’ll be responsible for analyzing data to improve the patient experience. These professionals also ensure that communication and recordkeeping systems run smoothly and efficiently.

A variety of certificates and degrees in healthcare informatics can prepare you for a job in this field. The more advanced education you complete, the more advanced roles you can qualify for.

7. Medical Assisting

  • Degree Options: Certificate/diploma
  • Program Length: 1 year
  • Accreditors: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools

You can begin a career as a medical assistant in just one year, after completing a certificate or diploma program. Medical assistants work in a variety of healthcare centers, including clinics, care centers, and hospitals.

Students can choose to complete an associate degree in medical assisting — no state license is required.

State

8. Medical Billing and Coding

  • Degree Options: Certificate/diploma, associate degree
  • Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Accreditors: Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools

A medical billing and coding certificate or degree can set you up for a long career of processing medical bills, understanding insurance, educating patients, and learning new software.

You’ll take classes like medical terminology, pharmacology, medical billing and health insurance, and basic coding. Medical billing and coding programs prepare students to take the ICD-10 exam.

Students can also find many scholarships and financial aid options for this career. If you wish to expand your job opportunities, consider getting a medical billing certification.

9. Medical Doctor

  • Degree Options: Doctor of medicine (MD)
  • Program Length: 4 years + 3-9 years in residency
  • Accreditors: Liaison Committee on Medical Education

Medical doctors can work as primary care physicians in a clinical setting or as ER doctors in hospitals. They can also specialize in a field like pediatrics or dermatology.

To become a doctor, you’ll need a doctor of medicine (MD) degree. The educational journey for a medical doctor is long and includes years of residency work.

10. Nursing

  • Degree Options: Certificate/diploma, associate degree in nursing (ADN), bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), master of science in nursing (MSN), doctor of nursing practice (DNP)
  • Program Length: Varies
  • Accreditors: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs

There are many kinds of nursing jobs, options for nursing schools, and nursing degree programs you can choose from. If you’re eager to jump into the field, you can become an LPN in just two years or less.

You can also opt for a longer degree path to become a nurse practitioner. Though daunting, there are many financial aid resources available to nursing students.

11. Occupational Therapy

  • Degree Options: Master of occupational therapy (MOT), doctor of occupational therapy (OTD)
  • Program Length: 2-4 years
  • Accreditors: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education

Occupational therapists help physically rehabilitate patients who have injuries, illnesses, or disabilities. Depending on your chosen program, you can become an occupational therapist, an occupational therapy assistant, or an occupational therapy aide.

12. Pharmacy

  • Degree Options: Doctor of pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
  • Program Length: 4 years + optional 1-2 years in residency
  • Accreditors: Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education

If you’d like to work as a pharmacist, you’ll need a doctor of pharmacy degree. In this program, you’ll learn about common illnesses and their treatments, biochemistry, immunology, drug development, anatomy, and global health issues.

Pharmacists prepare and handle prescription medications and then dispense them to patients. They’re also responsible for educating patients on how to take medications.

13. Public Health

  • Degree Options: Certificate/diploma, associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master of public health (MPH), doctorate (DrPH or Ph.D.)
  • Program Length: Varies
  • Accreditors: Council on Education for Public Health

A public health degree can lead to careers like community health manager, community health educator, medical and health services manager, and public health nutritionist if there is nutrition training as well.

Students take courses like epidemiology, health administration and policy, program planning and evaluation, and health education/health promotion.

14. Veterinary Medicine

  • Degree Options: Doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM)
  • Program Length: 4 years
  • Accreditors: American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education

To become a veterinarian, you’ll need a first-professional degree in veterinary medicine. An accredited veterinary medicine program will prepare you for licensure and provide you with the clinical experience necessary to succeed.

While students can choose from an array of animal specializations in vet school, like horses or wild animals, nearly 80% choose companion animal practice.

15. Veterinary Technology

  • Degree Options: Associate degree, bachelor’s degree
  • Program Length: 2-4 years
  • Accreditors: American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education

A veterinary technology degree prepares you to become a veterinary technician or technologist. You’ll learn about animal care, fundamental chemistry and biology, veterinary nursing, animal dental procedures, clinical pathology, and radiology.

Everything to Know About Medical Assisting

Why Accreditation Matters for a Healthcare Degree

Attending an accredited program is essential for healthcare professionals. Accreditation ensures that your program provides a high-quality education and adequately prepares you for a successful career.

Many jobs in healthcare require a license, and many licensing boards require you to have attended an accredited program. You’ll also need to attend an accredited program if you wish to pursue a graduate degree.

The following healthcare accreditors are all recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and/or the Department of Education.

What Healthcare Certifications Can You Get?

Certifications can qualify you for specific jobs and are required in some healthcare fields. Some professionals also use certifications to advance in their careers or learn new skills.

For certain healthcare roles, certification is a quick way to learn the necessary skills to qualify for a job and get straight to work.

Common Healthcare Certifications

  • Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)
  • Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES)
  • Certified in Healthcare Compliance (CHC)
  • Certified in Public Health (CPH)
  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)
  • Certified Medical Manager (CMM)
  • Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
  • Certified Phlebotomy Technician (CPT)
  • Certified Professional Coder (CPC)
  • Certified Professional in Healthcare Risk Management (CPHRM)
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT)

Healthcare Jobs and Salary Outlook

Jobs in healthcare are projected to grow 13% from 2021-2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This translates to nearly 2 million new jobs in the next decade.

The nurse practitioner role is projected to grow exceptionally fast, with a 46% growth rate. Other fast-growing occupations include medical and health services manager, physician assistant, physical therapist assistant, and occupational therapy assistant.

10 Fastest-Growing Healthcare Jobs
Job Median Annual Salary (May 2021) Job Growth Rate (2021-2031) Minimum Education Required
Nurse Practitioners $120,680 46% Master’s
Medical and Health Services Managers $101,340 28% Bachelor’s
Physician Assistants $121,530 28% Master’s
Physical Therapist Assistants $61,180 26% Associate
Occupational Therapy Assistants $61,730 25% Associate
Veterinary Technologists and Technicians $36,850 20% Associate
Veterinarians $100,370 19% First-Professional
Health Information Technologists and Medical Registrars $55,560 17% Associate
Orthotists and Prosthetists $75,440 17% Master’s
Physical Therapists $95,620 17% Doctorate

Source: BLS

Frequently Asked Questions About Healthcare

What degree is best for healthcare?

The best degree in healthcare for you will depend on your skills, career goals, and passions. If you prefer working directly with patients, a nursing degree may work well for you. If you’d rather assist with administration, you might consider a healthcare management degree.

What is the easiest healthcare degree to get?

Some of the easiest healthcare degrees to get may not be degrees at all — you can become a medical biller and coder with just a certificate, for example. Medical assistants also have a quick educational path through a diploma or certificate program.

Similarly, you can begin your career in nursing with a quick associate degree or, in some states, a nursing diploma.

What are the hardest healthcare jobs?

Most people consider the hardest jobs in healthcare to be highly technical roles, like brain surgeon, plastic surgeon, and oncologist. Ultimately, though, what’s hard for you will depend on your personal preferences and tolerances.

Some might consider emotionally tough jobs like social work or demanding roles, like working as a registered nurse, to be more difficult than others.

What are the highest-paying healthcare careers?

The highest-paying career in healthcare is anesthesiologist, which had a mean annual salary of $331,190 in May 2021, according to the BLS. Other high-paying healthcare careers include surgeon, physician, obstetrician, nurse anesthetist, pediatrician, and dentist.

What is the happiest job in healthcare?

The happiest job in healthcare will depend on what makes you happy. Some may feel the most satisfaction if their healthcare job comes with a six-figure salary, while others may feel happier working with specific fields or patients.

For example, some may be happiest working with children as a pediatrician. Others may prefer behind-the-scenes efficiency and be happiest in healthcare administration.