Fields Within the Medical Profession

There are numerous fields to consider before deciding on your particular medical career. The number of choices can be a bit overwhelming, but taking the time to explore your choices can pay big dividends. A career in medicine has great benefits and rewards. Numerous medical career options are a direct result of growth in the medical industry. Growth is spurred in part by continued medical advances and the country's steadily aging population. You won't have to worry about losing your job to downsizing. You can positively impact many lives in a variety of ways by choosing a medical career. You can have an impact on many different levels-individual, family, and community-when you decide on a career in health care. Many health care careers are available to you regardless of your educational level. You can possess a high school diploma or GED, associate's degree, bachelor's degree, master's degree, or doctoral degree and still have opportunities available to you in the health care arena. Your earning potential is increased by your decision to pursue a medical career as these positions are typically in high demand. A direct correlation exists between your salary and your skill or training level. You may never experience the same day twice due to the fast pace and dramatic nature of medical careers. You are making decisions that can mean the difference between life and death. Following is a discussion of some of the options available to you in the vast arena of medical careers.


Most people think of physicians when contemplating medical careers. Physicians diagnose and treat disease, illness, or injury in patients. They routinely prescribe medications in the course of diagnosing and treating disease. Physicians also conduct physical examinations on patients and elicit medical histories. They routinely order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests. Also in the course of practice, physicians counsel patients on health care issues such as diet, exercise, hygiene, smoking cessation, and prevention of disease.

There are two general categories of physicians. The first have obtained a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree, and the second have obtained a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). M.D.s are also known as allopathic physicians. The only difference between the two groups is that D.O.s incorporate a technique called manual manipulation in their quest to diagnose and treat disease. Manual manipulation is born from the D.O.'s emphasis on the musculoskeletal system as a key component for optimum health.

Most physicians are employed at hospitals, outpatient clinics, community health centers, small or large group practices, and other health care organizations. They are usually supported by nurses and other administrative personnel. Physicians work long, irregular hours and usually have to provide on-call services depending on the specialty. Benefit packages usually include paid vacation, medical and dental insurance, and a retirement savings plan. Physicians perform tasks in the office, termed outpatient services, and in the hospital, termed inpatient services. As of late, there has been division in some specialties, and some physicians render only outpatient services, while others render only inpatient services. A physician may open an independent practice, but must be ready to deal with all the duties of running a business, such as paying workers compensation insurance, dealing with government agencies, managing employees and payroll, etc.

A medical education is one of the most demanding of any profession. Acceptance to medical school is highly competitive, and approximately 50 percent of applicants are declined yearly. Medical education requires obtaining a bachelor's degree (B.S. or B.A.), a medical doctorate (M.D. or D.O.), a residency or training program, licensure, and board certification. Completion of the required education takes four years of undergraduate studies, four years of medical school, and three to eight years of residency or training, depending on the specialty selected. Some of the medical specialties represented include internal medicine, family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, dermatology, hematology and oncology, ophthalmology, otolaryngology, general surgery, anesthesiology, orthopedics, psychiatry, endocrinology, cardiology, pediatrics, neurology, and neurosurgery.

Salaries for physicians vary widely depending on specialty, with some examples being family practice at $135,000 to $224,000, anesthesiology at $244,000 to $421,000, cardiology at $210,000 to $424,000, endocrinology at $158,000 to $235,000, dermatology at $206,000 to $309,000, ophthalmology at $196,000 to $318,000, and pediatrics at $130,000 to $210,000. The employment outlook for physicians and surgeons is excellent and expected to grow by 22 percent through the year 2018.


Nurses would be the second most popular group when contemplating the many available medical careers. Nursing jobs are varied. Nurses execute physicians' orders, supervise certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs), dispense medications, and provide direct care to patients. They gather medical information and elicit medical histories. Nurses are the physician's "eyes and ears" as they by far spend the most time with patients and make keen observations. Nurses perform some diagnostic tests, interpret their results, and inform physicians of these results. They start, maintain, and discontinue intravenous lines for administration of fluids, medications, blood, and blood products. Nurses routinely consult with physicians and other health care professionals to execute orders and treatment plans and relay and record observations. General categories of nurses include registered nurses (RNs), LPNs, and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs).

Nurses work in a variety of environments including hospitals, outpatient clinics, community health centers, small or large group physician practices, homes, schools, and work sites. They carry out their duties in outpatient and inpatient settings. The job can be strenuous due to considerable time spent standing, walking, bending, kneeling, lifting, and stretching. Benefit packages usually include paid vacation, medical and dental insurance, and a retirement savings plan.

Nursing degree educational programs follow one of three paths-Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.), associate's degree in nursing, or a diploma in nursing. B.S.N. degree programs generally take four years to complete. Associate's degree programs generally take two to three years to complete. Diploma programs, typically administered by hospitals, take about three years to complete. Some nurses continue their education and complete master's level education (M.S.N.). Others choose to pursue programs to become advanced practice nurses, such as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners (NPs). As of late, NPs have gained importance due to the shortage of physicians nationwide. Nurses also practice in specialty areas such as pediatrics, oncology, dermatology, hospice, infusion, pediatric oncology, medical-surgical, occupational health, home health, neonatal intensive care, psychiatry, cardiac care, and adult intensive care. Nurses are required to be licensed in their state of practice.

Salaries for LPNs and LVNs range from $35,000 to $48,000. Salaries for licensed RNs range from $54,000 to $78,000. Salaries for nurse practitioners range from $77,000 to $103,000. Like physicians, projected job growth of nurses will increase by 22 percent through the year 2018.

Physical Therapist

There are other medical careers to consider beyond being a physician or nurse. One of those is physical therapy. Physical therapists diagnose and treat patients of all ages with health conditions, illnesses, or injuries that limit movement and performance of the activities of daily living. They examine patients and formulate treatment plans to restore function, reduce or relieve pain, improve mobility, and prevent or limit disabilities in afflicted patients. Physical therapists also develop fitness programs to promote health and wellness. Physical therapists routinely consult with other health care professionals such as physicians, nurses, dentists, social workers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and audiologists. They may supervise physical therapy assistants. Some of the functional problems helped by physical therapy include back and neck injuries, musculoskeletal sprains and strains, bone fractures, work injuries, sports injuries, osteoarthritis, burns, strokes, amputations, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida. Physical therapists enjoy exposure to a diverse range of people and backgrounds. They utilize many interventions to treat patients such as exercise, functional training, manual therapy, assistive and adaptive devices or equipment, and infrared and electro stimulation modalities.

Most physical therapists are employed at rehabilitation centers, hospitals, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, or private doctors' offices. The job can be physically demanding due to long periods of heavy lifting, stooping, kneeling, walking, and standing. Most physical therapists work forty-hour weeks with some nights and weekends to accommodate patient schedules. Benefit packages usually include paid vacation, medical and dental insurance, and a retirement savings plan.

Physical therapy educational programs require a bachelor's degree prior to matriculation, and students can obtain either a master's degree or doctoral degree in this concentration. Undergraduate courses in areas such as chemistry, biology, anatomy, physiology, mathematics, physics, humanities, and social sciences are very helpful. Like other medical careers, physical therapists are required to be licensed in their states of practice. Most physical therapists are general practitioners, but some specialize in areas such as pediatrics, neurology, geriatrics, sports medicine, or cardiopulmonary rehabilitation. Salaries for physical therapists range from $64,000 to $85,000. Job prospects for physical therapists remain excellent. Growth in nationwide employment of physical therapists is expected to increase by 27 percent through the year 2018.


Radiology is one of the many medical careers under the umbrella of physicians. Radiologists are physicians that perform or interpret the outcomes of diagnostic imaging studies such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) scans, positron emission tomography (PET) scans, mammography, and ultrasound. Radiologists are primarily involved in the diagnosis of disease. There are some radiologists that perform image-guided interventions in the treatment of disease, such as biopsy, angioplasty, and drainage. Radiologists have varied duties. They may provide counseling to patients to explain the processes, risks, benefits, or alternative treatments with regard to radiologic procedures. Radiologists communicate the results of radiologic examinations to referring physicians, patients, and families. They routinely collaborate with referring physicians in the development of treatment plans for patients. They coordinate radiological procedures with other medical services. They supervise radiologic technicians, assistants, and nurses. Radiologists may instruct staff on desired techniques, positions, or projections for radiological procedures. They evaluate medical information to determine risks, such as allergies to contrast agents, and make decisions regarding the appropriateness of radiological procedures.

Most radiologists are employed by hospitals, clinics, or group private practices. They usually work in office settings. Compared to the majority of physicians, radiologists do not spend as much time in direct patient contact. Like most physicians, work hours can be long and entail on-call duties. Perks can include on-call duties from home with connections to hospital networks and "nighthawk" coverage, sometimes provided by overseas services, doing away with need for overnight availability. Also radiologists average double the amount of vacation time as other physicians, eight to twelve weeks versus four to six weeks.

A career as a physician in radiology requires obtaining a bachelor's degree, a medical doctorate (M.D. or D.O.), a residency or training program, licensure, and board certification. Some radiologists pursue fellowships and practice radiological subspecialties, such as breast imaging, interventional radiology, musculoskeletal radiology, neuroradiology, cardiovascular radiology, pediatric radiology, nuclear radiology, or radiation oncology.

Salaries for radiologists range from $274,000 to $505,000. Like the majority of physicians, job outlooks are excellent for the years to come. Job growth among radiologists is expected to increase approximately 22 percent through the year 2018.


Pharmacists are the medication experts when it comes to medical careers. Pharmacists dispense medications to patients. They also compound, or manually mix, active ingredients to form medications, which today is only a small fraction of their practice as most medications are received premixed and prepackaged. Pharmacists advise patients, physicians, and other health practitioners on the selection, dosages, interactions, and side effects of medications. One of their most important roles is to prevent harmful drug interactions. They also provide advice to patients on general health topics such as diet and exercise, as well as disease-specific advice in areas such as diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, gout, and high cholesterol. In some states, they are trained to administer vaccinations. Pharmacists may supervise pharmacy technicians or oversee internships of pharmacy school students. In hospitals, they mix intravenous therapies meant for nutrition and chemotherapy for cancer treatment as well as counsel patients on their medication regimens prior to discharge.

The majority of pharmacists are employed at community pharmacies, retail drug stores, hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes. They typically work forty hours per week with some overtime as appropriate. Pharmacists may be required to work some nights, weekends, and holidays. Some travel may be required, especially those pharmacists doing consulting work at health care facilities.

Pharmacy schools typically require two years of prerequisite course work in areas such as chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, humanities, and social sciences. Students earn a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree, typically within four years. The Bachelor of Pharmacy degree is no longer awarded. Pharmacists are required to obtain a license in order to practice. Postgraduate residency training programs and fellowships are available for those interested in continuing their educations. Some pharmacists choose to specialize in specific areas of drug therapy, such as cancer, nuclear pharmacy, geriatric pharmacy, and intravenous nutrition. Training in pharmacy lends itself to varied occupational choices, such pharmaceutical research and development, pharmaceutical marketing and sales, and faculty positions at schools of pharmacy. Some pharmacists are entrepreneurial and become owners of independent pharmacies. Other pharmacists choose to work for governmental agencies, managed care organizations, health insurance companies, or public health care services.

Salaries for pharmacists range from $103,000 to $125,000. Job prospects for pharmacists should be excellent in the years to come. Employment growth for pharmacists is expected to increase by 17 to 25 percent through the year 2018. Most of this growth will likely be attributed to an aging population increasing the need for prescription medications.


Dentistry is another professional option in medical careers. Dentists diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases of the mouth, teeth, and gums. The duties of a dentist vary and, during the course of a typical day, may entail extracting teeth, filling cavities, reading X-rays, administering anesthesia, treating gum disease, straightening teeth, replacing teeth, repairing fractured teeth, applying sealant, prescribing medication, detecting oral cancer, and taking teeth impressions. They also provide advice on oral and dental care, such as brushing, flossing, diet, and using fluorides. While carrying out their duties, they utilize varied equipment, such as drills, mirrors, probes, X-ray machines, forceps, lasers, and scanners. They may supervise ancillary staff, such as dental assistants, hygienists, and laboratory technicians.

Most dentists administer generalized care. Others decide to specialize in one of nine areas: orthodontics, oral and maxillofacial surgery, pediatric dentistry, periodontics, prosthodontics, endodontics, oral pathology, oral and maxillofacial radiology, or public health dentistry. Orthodontists use devices such as braces and retainers to straighten teeth. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons operate on the mouth, teeth, gums, jaws, head, and neck. Pediatric dentists focus on treating children. Periodontists treat the gums and bones supporting the teeth. Prosthodontists use devices such as dentures, crowns, and bridges to replace missing teeth. Endodontists perform root canal procedures. Oral pathologists use microscopes to diagnose dental disease. Oral and maxillofacial radiologists diagnose oral, head, and neck disease through imaging studies such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computed tomography (CT) scans.

Most dentists are employed at private solo or group dental practices. Others are employed by hospitals and dental clinics. Most dentists work forty hours a week, although this number varies greatly. Some work on-call hours and extend hours to evenings and weekends to accommodate special needs of patients. Some work part time, and others work decreased hours depending on their stage of career.

Dental school educational programs usually require a bachelor's degree, and students are awarded either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.) degree. Dentists are required to be licensed in their states of practice. Postgraduate training programs and fellowships exist for the areas of dental specialization already discussed.

Salaries for dentists range from $108,000 to $178,000. Earning potential on the higher end of the salary scale can be achieved by practicing in one of the specialized areas of dentistry. The employment outlook for dentists is forecast to increase 16 percent through the year 2018, which is in large part due to the need to replace the disproportionate number of retiring practitioners.

Dental Assistant

Dental assistants help deliver quality dental care and are another of the medical careers to consider when surveying the medical career landscape. They perform a variety of patient care and laboratory and office administrative duties. Patient care duties can include eliciting patient dental histories, preparing patients for treatment, providing suction during procedures, removing sutures, handing instruments and materials to dentists during procedures, providing postoperative instructions, and advising on general oral health care. Laboratory duties can entail sterilizing and disinfecting dental instruments and equipment, processing dental X-rays, and making casts of dental impressions. Office administrative duties can include scheduling and confirming patient appointments, ordering and restocking dental supplies and materials, filing patient dental records, and processing patient co-payments. They are typically the "second pair of hands" for a practicing dentist.

Dental assistants are typically employed by dentists at private solo or group dental practices, hospitals, and dental clinics. Most work full time, forty hours per week, with occasional overtime. Others work part time and may hold multiple jobs at different practices depending on the days of the week. Benefit packages usually include paid vacation, medical and dental insurance, and a retirement savings plan.

Dental assistant educational programs can be completed in as little as four to six months at some private vocational schools. Educational programs leading to a certificate or diploma in dental assisting take upward of one year to complete. Programs leading to a two-year associate's degree are also available. All educational programs require a high school diploma or GED, and background courses in chemistry, biology, anatomy, and office practices can be very helpful. Some states require licensure or certification of dental assistants.

Dental assistant salaries range from $25,000 to $39,000. Job growth in dental assisting is forecasted to increase by 36 percent through the year 2018. Most of the job growth will be new jobs, but some openings will arise out of the need to replace dental assistants entering retirement or changing occupations.

Medical Billing and Coding

All health care professionals that deliver patient care and services need to get paid, hence the need for professional medical billers and coders. Medical billing and coding is another high growth area in medical careers. Medical coders assign number codes to medical diagnoses or diseases and medical services provided by health care professionals. Medical billers process billing information and submit reimbursement claims to insurance companies. The number codes supplied by medical coders are typically submitted by medical billers for reimbursement of health care professionals. In simpler terms, the medical coder turns diagnoses and services into number codes, while the medical biller takes the number codes and turns them into money. The two work in concert to achieve one goal-getting health care professionals paid. Typical duties of medical billing and coding professionals can include explaining insurance benefits to patients, bookkeeping, review of bills submitted by health practitioners, reviewing explanation of benefits (EOBs) and explaining them to patients, and efficient billing of insurance providers. A good medical billing and coding professional is accurate, detail oriented, and organized and can relate easily to people. The aforementioned traits go a long way to avoid errors and rejections, leading to efficient payment of submitted claims, which leads to happy and paid health care professionals.

The majority of medical billing and coding professionals are employed at hospitals, clinics, doctors' offices, or agencies. Work is typically forty hours per week Monday through Friday, with occasional overtime and weekend days as needed. Benefit packages usually include paid vacation, medical and dental insurance, and a retirement savings plan.

Students interested in a medical billing and coding careers have many routes to complete their educations. Previous courses in bookkeeping, typing, health, medical terminology, biology, chemistry, mathematics, medical information, physiology, office administration, and anatomy can provide relevant experience to achieve this goal. Most programs can be completed in nine months to one year. Online medical billing and coding courses can be completed for those with time or lifestyle constraints. Others choose associate degree medical billing and coding programs, and those wanting more in-depth exposure can pursue bachelor's degree programs.

Salaries for medical billing and coding professionals can range from $36,000 to $45,000. Of course, earning potential can be increased with continuing studies and relevant levels of experience. Employment growth in medical billing and coding is expected to increase by 18 percent through the year 2016.

Home Health Nurse

Home health nursing is another option in the plethora of medical careers. Home health nurses administer care in the comfort of their patients' homes. Nursing duties of these professionals are very similar to those providing care within the confines of a hospital or nursing home. They administer medications, immunizations, and intravenous fluids under the supervision of a physician. They assist with activities of daily living, such as bathing, dressing, eating, and toileting. They monitor vital signs (temperature, blood pressure, breathing rate, heart rate, blood sugar levels) and the overall well-being of the patients under their care. They are the "eyes and ears" of the primary caregiver charged with their care. Honesty, compassion, adaptability, and attention to detail are traits that serve students of this discipline well.

Home health nurses routinely work in home environments and may have to visit multiple patients in the course of a day. Patients are varied and include those terminally ill, those refusing nursing home stays, those with disabilities, and those convalescing from serious illness or injury. Work schedules usually have built-in flexibility, and some can be on call at twenty-four-hour intervals, depending on the situation. They can be private duty or employed by agencies, hospitals, or clinics. Benefit packages usually include mileage reimbursement, paid vacation, medical and dental insurance, and a retirement savings plan.

Educational programs for home health nurses typically require a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree, usually a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.). Most programs require a Registered Nurse (RN) designation. Some nurses interested in management further their educations and obtain master's or doctoral-level degrees in nursing. Some employers require certification in Basic Life Support (BLS) and Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS). As in other fields, home health nurses are required to be licensed in their states of practice.

Salaries for home health nurse professionals range from $46,000 to $93,000. Earning potential is influenced by a variety of factors, such as area of specialization, educational background, level of experience, and geographical location. Due to the country's aging population and increased demand for home health services, employment growth among home health nurses is forecasted to steadily increase in the years to come.


Chiropractors are another piece in the puzzle of medical careers. Chiropractic physicians diagnose and treat problems of the musculoskeletal system and their effects on the central nervous system and general health. Chiropractors, like many other health practitioners, elicit patient histories, conduct physical examinations (including neurological and orthopedic systems), and order imaging studies such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computed tomography (CT) scans to diagnose and treat illness or disease. They typically conduct manual adjustments of the spinal column and other orthopedic systems, as they believe spinal and orthopedic misalignment can contribute to illness or disease. They also utilize nonsurgical techniques and therapies such as electrical stimulation, straps, braces, tape, and shoe inserts. They typically don't perform surgery or use prescription medications in their practices. Some choose to specialize in neurology, sports injuries, pediatrics, nutrition, internal medicine, or diagnostic imaging concentrations. Manual dexterity, patience, keen observation skills, and attention to detail are character traits needed by those who pursue this avenue.

Chiropractors usually work in freestanding offices and are employed at private solo or group chiropractic practices and some hospitals or nursing homes. Most engage in solo practice and are self-employed. They offer on-site imaging for routine X-rays of the musculoskeletal system. Some larger practices have the resources to offer onsite MRIs and CT scans, but this is not the norm for most chiropractic providers. On average, chiropractors work forty-hour weeks. Longer work hours are not unheard of in an effort to accommodate evening and weekend patients. Some solo practitioners and groups engage in on-call hours.

Chiropractic educational programs require a bachelor's degree and completion of a four-year program at an accredited chiropractic schoolr, leading to a Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree. Licensure is required and achieved through a four-part examination overseen by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners.

Salaries for chiropractors range from $92,000 to $223.000. Most start on the low salary end and obtain higher salaries with increased years of experience and practice. Employment for chiropractors is forecast to increase 20 percent through the year 2018.

Mental Health

Mental health careers encompass a wide range of professions under the broader guise of medical careers. These professionals work with individuals or groups, from children to adults, dealing with problems such as addiction, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, grief, anger, depression, low self-esteem, and family, marital, or parenting strife. They are paramount in diagnosing, treating, and preventing emotional and mental illness or disease. They are well versed in human behavior. Professions represented in mental health include counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and psychiatric nurses. Modes of treatment can be purely medical, psychosocial, psychotherapeutic, or combinations of these therapies. Empathy, patience, and altruism are several character traits embodied by these practitioners.

Mental health practitioners are employed in a variety of work environments, including agencies, community health centers, mental health clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, physician offices, and private practice. Most mental health professionals maintain a forty-hour work week, but hours vary depending on your concentration. Most maintain on-call hours as psychiatric emergencies are unpredictable.

Educational programs for mental health careers vary widely. Some counselors have real-world experience with addiction and substance abuse, while others engage in master's degree-level course work. Most states require counselors to be licensed. Psychologists require completion of a bachelor's degree, doctoral degree (Ph.D.), and licensing by their respective states. Psychiatrists are physicians and require completion of a bachelor's degree, a medical doctorate (M.D. or D.O.), a residency or training program, licensure, and board certification. Social workers typically are required to obtain a bachelor's degree and complete master's degree-level (M.S.W.) course work, as well as licensing. Psychiatric nurses usually are required to complete a bachelor's nursing degree, and some continue their education to a master's degree level. They are also required to obtain licenses.

Salaries for mental health counselors range from $27,000 to $45,000. Salaries for psychologists range from $64,000 to $101,000. Salaries for psychiatrists range from $153,000 to $227,000. Salaries for mental health social workers range from $45,000 to $65,000. Salaries for psychiatric nurses range from $53,000 to $80,000. Increased job growth in all of these disciplines is expected in the years to come. For example, job growth among psychologists and social workers is expected to increase by 12 percent through the year 2018.

Last Updated: 09/18/2014