Careers in Healthcare

See also: Personal Development

There are many possible careers and jobs in the healthcare sector. Some of these require direct provision of care or treatment to patients. These include doctors, nurses, midwives, health visitors and speech and language therapists.

Others, such as laboratory technicians and radiographers, provide specialist support for these frontline professionals. Still more people work in jobs in healthcare organisations, but which are not specific to healthcare, such as management, administration, and as receptionists.

This page discusses the skills and attributes required to work in various careers in healthcare. It considers how these three types of work may differ, and where there may be similarities. It focuses mainly on primary, secondary and tertiary care (clinics, hospitals and specialist hospitals), rather than the industries that underpin healthcare, such as medical devices and life sciences and pharmaceuticals.

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

Our page on Soft Skills explains that skills are often divided into two types:

  • Hard skills are job- or career-specific skills, such as a doctor’s medical knowledge; and

  • Soft skills are not technical or job-related, and are often known as transferable skills. They include skills like communication skills and other interpersonal skills.

Most jobs require a range of both hard and soft skills. These skills will vary with the job and the sector.

In healthcare, perhaps the most obvious distinction is between patient-facing and support roles, and then between generic and healthcare-specific support roles.

Patient-Facing Roles: Providing Care and Treatment

By far the best-known jobs in healthcare are patient-facing roles that require the provision of care and treatment.

These include doctors, nurses, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, clinical psychologists and midwives. All these roles require significant job-specific knowledge that must be gained through extensive study, usually at degree level. Many also require post-graduate study and qualifications, together with ongoing continuing professional development.

Decisions about entering these careers are therefore often made early—at the age of 17 in many countries—and progression requires considerable commitment.

The real question is therefore how can you tell whether one of these areas would be a suitable career for you? You don’t want to make that commitment and then find you were wrong.

Many of these roles share certain professional and personal characteristics. For example:

  • You need to be prepared to study hard and extensively, and have a reasonable capacity for acquiring knowledge.

  • For many of these areas, you will need to be good at basic science—and that means getting good grades at school. Many healthcare careers are grounded in both human biology and chemistry, not to mention mathematics (think how important calculating dosages will be to both physicians and pharmacists).

  • You need to be interested in learning and improving on an ongoing basis. A growth mindset is an important part of these roles. Our post on developing your professional career in healthcare highlights the importance of continuing education.

  • You will need a tolerance of working unusual hours, including on-call. Patients are seldom ill on demand, and certainly not only during office hours.

  • You must be interested in people, and have good emotional intelligence. You will be dealing with people who may be very vulnerable and need support.

  • You will need good communication skills, to be able to explain complex ideas and conditions to people in terms that they will understand. You will also need to be able to listen to them—and hear as much what they are not saying as well as the actual words.

  • You need to be able to work well with other people in teams and groups. Multi-disciplinary working is an increasingly important part of healthcare provision.

These last three have traditionally been less valued in many roles, especially medicine itself (being a doctor). Years ago, medical schools looked for highly academic students who were good at sciences, and didn’t worry about the soft skills. However, this is now changing. There is growing understanding that these are primarily jobs that involve people.

If you don’t want to be in regular contact with people, and if you are not very tolerant of people at their most vulnerable, these are not roles for you.

You may be interested in our posts What Skills Do You Need to Become a Medical Professional? and Life Skills You Need for a Career in Nursing. These cover the broad skills needed by doctors and nurses.

For more specific jobs, you may be interested in working in mental health services.

Our post How Healthcare Providers Can Improve their Relationships with Patients talks about the interpersonal skills required for these roles.

Technical (Healthcare-Specific) Support Roles

There are many technical and healthcare-specific support roles: people who work behind the scenes to ensure that patients receive the right care. Some of these will have some contact with patients, but this is not their primary role. These jobs include medical physicists, who maintain and develop hospital equipment; diagnostic radiographers, who take x-rays and carry out other imaging work; and laboratory technicians, who run blood tests, create and review slides and culture samples to see what grows.

All these staff may—and often do—come into contact with patients and need to interact with them effectively. However, they are not primarily responsible for patients’ care: that is the role of doctors, nurses and other patient-facing professionals.

The role of these staff is primarily technical: to manage the equipment and run tests so that the patient-facing staff can make the right diagnosis and decisions.

These roles also share some common skills and attributes:

  • Like the patient-facing roles, you need good grades in science subjects. Most technical roles in healthcare are grounded in science in some way. However, the precise science will vary with the role.

  • You also need to be prepared to study hard and gain professional qualifications, and to update those as necessary. Some technician roles do not need degree-level qualifications, but all require at least some further education beyond school.

  • You need to be able to handle practical work and be reasonably technically minded. You also need to be comfortable working with technology. If you were not interested in practical science at school, or struggle with computers, you are unlikely to thrive in this environment.

  • Like many patient-facing professionals, you will need a tolerance for working unsocial hours, including on-call. You also need to be able to work well under pressure.

  • You should be able to work competently in a team and get along with others.

Generic Support Roles

Hospitals and other healthcare provider locations also employ many other staff in generic roles such as administration and management. These roles require some job-specific skills and knowledge, such as an understanding about how the healthcare system works. However, many of the skills are not necessarily sector-specific, and the knowledge can be acquired on the job.

These roles therefore have far more general skills requirements, such as:

  • For many management roles, a degree is required, but not in any particular subject, and little or no continuous professional development is expected.

  • Managers in healthcare often need financial skills because they tend to be the gatekeepers of many budgets.

  • You will need good interpersonal skills, especially team-working, because these roles involve working with a wide range of professionals and individuals. Some may also be patient-facing.

  • You must have good organisational skills, including time management.

  • The ability to get things done, and especially to manage projects, is often highly prized in the healthcare sector.

There is more about working as a healthcare administrator in our post on this issue. You can find out more about the wide range of jobs available in this sector in our post Is a Career in Healthcare for You?

Taking the Time: Do All Healthcare Jobs need Postgraduate Study?

Many jobs in healthcare require extensive study, often at postgraduate level.

However, some do not.

Our post on Healthcare Jobs that Don’t Require an Advanced Degree highlights some that require lower level qualifications. These may be preferable for people who do not wish to study for extensive periods, or who are changing careers and cannot afford to take on debt for too much extra study.

A Wide Range of Roles and Skills

It should be clear from this page that the healthcare sector offers a wide range of roles, with a wide range of skill requirements.

If you feel that working in healthcare would be rewarding because of the ‘public good’ nature of the sector, you should be able to find a job that will suit you, whatever your skills and interests. However, the extensive training and education required for many roles means that this is not an area to enter blindly. It is worth exploring carefully to make sure that it will suit you before you commit to the study and effort required.