If you like the idea of a career where you can really make a difference in people’s lives and enjoy great employment prospects, healthcare is an excellent field to choose. It’s one where you will find a wide variety of opportunities, and there are lots of different ways into it – but what’s the best way to get started? How can you identify the roles you’ll be best suited to, hone your skills and make yourself stand out from the crowd? This article will help you to figure it out stage by stage.
Discover many roles to choose from
Roughly 22 million people work in healthcare in the US – 14% of the entire working population. Naturally, they’re not all doctors or nurses. The sector incorporates numerous other roles, from porters to surgeons, dental assistants, researchers and finance staff. It might roughly be divided into three subsections: those who begin as doctors, dentists or psychiatrists (but may specialize in any number of areas); those who practice nursing; and support workers, who have many different skill sets. Those in the first category focus on treating illness. Those in the second specialize in promoting health. Those in the third ensure that they have the help they need to do their jobs, and also help to look after patients and handle administrative tasks.
If you want to work in the first category, you will first need to get a degree. The same is true of the second, with the caveat that you won’t need to be fully qualified in order to start doing certain hands-on tasks. It’s possible to move into some support roles even if you failed to graduate from high school, and you can cross over into others from similar roles in different sectors. While not all supporting roles offer much opportunity for advancement, they can provide a useful opportunity to familiarize yourself with medical environments and develop some of the people skills that are important to all these careers.
Assess your own abilities
Once you’ve decided which healthcare roles most appeal to you, it’s time to think about what you are personally best suited for. Don’t fall prey to stereotypes – if you don’t see people of your gender, race or social background in a particular job, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for you. Instead, think about your talents and how you’re willing to develop them. Which are your strongest academic subjects? Do you prefer a strictly logical approach or a more intuitive one? Do you work best on your own or as part of a team? How do you cope when things go wrong?
Alongside this, you should think about what you need on a personal level in order to stay healthy and keep up your commitment to your new job. How much responsibility do you feel comfortable with? How do you feel about long hours? There are no right or wrong answers to questions like these, but working through them will help you to get a clearer idea of the sort of role in which you might thrive – and help others to do likewise.
Choose the right subjects to study
Once you know the path you want to take, it’s time to think about study. If you want to become a doctor or a nursing professional, you will need an academic grounding, but you’ll have quite a bit of choice as you advance beyond the basics. When it comes to working in research, you can progress to that point through either of these professional routes or by studying a related subject such as anatomy or pharmacology. It’s always possible to change your mind as you progress, and many healthcare employers favor job candidates who have explored a number of different areas. However, if you have a passion for a particular area, working towards your specialty from an early stage can present you with a lot more opportunities.
In the field of healthcare, education tends to be broken up into blocks, some of them part-time, and fitted around other aspects of work or life in general. This means that there is sometimes room to take supplementary courses as well as your main one, and doing so will, again, give you a deeper perspective. It’s particularly helpful if you plan to work in diagnostics or focus on holistic patient care.
Consider online courses
Traditionally, one of the limiting factors affecting who does and who doesn’t end up working in healthcare has been location, because if you didn’t have a good college in your area and couldn’t afford to commute or relocate, you didn’t have many choices. Online courses have changed that. Much more comprehensive and accessible than more old-fashioned correspondence courses, they give you the chance to do the bulk of your studying from anywhere that you can get a good internet connection.
Online courses generally let you pick your own hours of study, which makes them comparatively easy to fit around a job or domestic responsibilities, but in this sector, they still involve some interactive work. You will be able to connect with fellow students to work on group projects, as well as getting support from tutors. You can learn from watching videos and go over them again and again as needed to make sure that you have thoroughly understood. You’ll be directed to further reading material so that you can flesh out your understanding and focus more deeply on areas that particularly interest you – one of the most effective ways to learn.
To get a clearer idea of how this kind of course works, click here. Just as in traditional forms of education, understanding your course thoroughly before you begin will make it easier for you to work out how much time you will need to allocate to it and what additional resources you may need in order to get as much out of it as possible.
Gain voluntary experience
One good way to find out more about how well suited you are to these professions is to do some voluntary work within the sector. When places are limited, this can help you to make the cut for top courses, and it can also make you more appealing to employers. There are lots of charities and voluntary organizations within the sector that are willing to train hard workers, and by engaging with them, you can start helping people in the here and now, even before you graduate.
If you can’t find a voluntary organization offering practical opportunities within your local area, consider focusing on a different set of useful skills. Doing administrative work for a charity will help when it comes to the recordkeeping and other administrative aspects of most healthcare roles. If you can find an opportunity to work with statistics, it will give you a big advantage when it comes to understanding quantitative data presented in your course. This is an area where many people study, and it’s much easier to get the time you may need to process it if you do so in advance, instead of while you’re also trying to keep up with other aspects of a challenging course.
Gain clinical experience
For most healthcare roles, online study on its own is not adequate to secure a qualification. You will also need to do lab work, which usually involves two to four weeks in a specific location, or gain clinical hours, which can be done in most sizable hospitals and some private clinics. Clinical hours are hours spent working, with supervision, in an established healthcare setting. You will only be able to begin these after you have already got several months of study under your belt, and you will need a formal induction. Your course tutor will explain how you can contact local healthcare providers to arrange to undertake them.
Clinical experience enables established sector professionals to determine that you know how to translate your theoretical learning into practical action. It also establishes that you can keep the pace in a real healthcare facility, that you can treat patients appropriately, and that you won’t panic if confronted with something tragic or gruesome. Before you can qualify, it needs to be clear that you have that special quality needed to soldier on and keep making good decisions under the kinds of pressure that only a clinical environment can create.
Find a mentor
One of the great things about spending time building up clinical experience is that it gives you the opportunity to talk to established professionals, watch them work and, if you’re lucky, find a mentor. There is simply nothing like mentoring to help you pick up practical skills. It’s inspirational to watch somebody who knows what they’re doing cope with the challenges of healthcare work, and it will boost your confidence in your own ability to do likewise. Your mentor won’t just be there to give you technical advice, but also to buoy up your mood and expand your idea of what you’re capable of.
Although you may be tempted to aim high in pursuit of advantage, the best mentors are usually those who are just a year or two ahead of you on their career paths. They still remember what it’s like to be new, so they’re better at anticipating where you will run into difficulties, as well as being more sympathetic when you do. They also tend to be more closely embedded in the culture of their particular workplaces, so they can help you to establish yourself socially, which always makes work easier and more enjoyable.
Students working towards healthcare careers tend to be so busy that the social side of life often gets overlooked, but the contacts you make during and after studying can be almost as important to your future career as your qualifications themselves. They will help you to get job interviews and could even lead to you getting involved in a start-up. They will also provide you with important sources of information going forward, which could make all the difference when you have a complex problem to solve and need guidance from somebody with a different specialism. In real life, patients often have complex health problems that don’t fit neatly within the bounds of one department, and sometimes their lives are saved because the people treating them – even in comparatively lowly positions – happen to have contacts who can help them to unravel their issues.
In the early stages of your healthcare career, and even when you’re still at the stage of preparing for it to start, social engagement is also important because it helps you to feel confident about speaking to people from many different backgrounds, including people who are older or more qualified than you. This will improve your ability to engage with patients and win their confidence.
Why it’s worth the effort
No matter how much study you do in advance of kicking off your healthcare career, it’s unlikely to stop there. In many positions within the field, further study is mandated. In most, it’s encouraged. The good news is that it’s often paid for, and your hours will normally be adjusted as required to ensure that you can make room for it. This means that your knowledge will remain fresh and you’ll be able to keep up with changes in best practice guidelines. It also means that you’re highly unlikely to end up feeling bored or stuck in a rut, and opportunities for changing what you do will continually present themselves.
With an aging population and the damage done by the recent coronavirus pandemic both putting a strain on healthcare resources, demand for staff is high across all areas within the sector, so you won’t have to worry about it being difficult to find a job. Although some licensing systems are state specific, picking up additional licenses is not particularly difficult or expensive, so you will have a lot of freedom to relocate in the future if you feel the need. You’ll be able to command good wages and, best of all, you’ll experience the rewarding sensation of knowing that you are making other people’s lives better, making the world a better place.