If the road to medical school seems too long, or you have financial constraints that prevent you from applying, you might want to consider a career that offers many of the same experiences a physician can have, but without the extensive schooling.
Weighing your options: Pros & cons of allied health careers
While length of training should not be your only considerations when choosing a career, for many applicants, spending four years in med school, followed by 3-10 more years in residency and fellowship, is simply not practical. In these careers, you can diagnose and treat patients, assist in surgeries, deliver babies, or have many other amazing experiences. You will probably start getting an income sooner than a physician will and may have less debt when you are done.
In many allied health professions, you will work side-by-side with physicians and be a valuable part of the healthcare team. Many companies are hiring more “mid-level providers” to fill primary care positions, so the job market is rapidly growing. If being a hands-on provider is what appeals most to you, then these careers are worth considering.
Allied health career options
If you are considering an allied health career, read on to help you decide which one is right for you. The average number of years of education for each profession is listed (although some have additional training opportunities which could extend your education). For each profession, salaries vary according to your specialty, where you practice, and years of experience. All require a bachelor’s degree, while the CNM, CRNA, and DNP degrees require a nursing degree/previous nursing experience.
|Physician Assistant||2 years|
|Doctor of Nursing Practice||2-4 years|
|Certified Nurse Anesthetist||2-3 years|
|Certified Nurse Midwife||1.5 years|
|Physical Therapist||3 years|
|Doctor of Chiropractic||4 years|
|Doctor of Acupuncture/Oriental Medicine||4 years|
|Masters in Acupuncture||3 years|
|Doctor of Podiatric Medicine||4 years|
|Doctor of Optometry||4 years|
*Some of these professions require residencies.
Physician Assistant (PA)
If the idea of being out of school and taking care of patients in 2-3 years sounds appealing, you may want to consider becoming a PA. You will have the option of working side-by-side with physicians in a hospital setting or seeing patients on your own in an outpatient clinic. You can specialize in a variety of areas (cardiovascular surgery, emergency medicine, geriatrics, oncology, orthopedics, pediatrics, and psychiatry, to name a few). Many PAs feel they have the best of both worlds: practicing medicine independently, while consulting with a physician for more complicated cases. It is truly a field for lifelong learners, since much of what you learn will be on the job, rather than in school.
Nurse practitioner (NP)
For those with a nursing degree who would like to gain more independence, becoming a DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) could be the most logical step to take. As a DNP, you can see patients independently and provide basic healthcare in an inpatient or outpatient setting. Like a PA, you will have physician backup as needed, but can often serve as the patient’s primary provider and manage conditions that are within your scope of care. DNPs can specialize in acute care, gerontology, emergency medicine, family health, neonatal, pediatrics, psychiatry, or women’s health.
Certified nurse midwife (CNM)
If you are a labor and delivery nurse (or are interested in women’s health) and would like to take the next step in your career, becoming a CNM allows you to do prenatal care, women’s primary care, family planning procedures, uncomplicated deliveries, and even assist with c-sections. CNMs provide patients with an alternative to the medical model of childbirth, treating it as a normal process and seeking to reduce the amount of medical interventions that are needed. A CNM’s goal is to offer a safe and positive childbirth experience for all women. As more CNMs are working closely with ob-gyns, patients who might not have been candidates for a natural childbirth are able to have a positive and rewarding experience in a safe and medically supervised setting.
Certified nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
Another nursing specialty degree is the CRNA (Certified Nurse Anesthetist), which allows anesthesia practice, either in a hospital or at an outpatient surgery center. CRNAs are in high demand in areas where there is a physician shortage, and have a high degree of independence.
Physical therapist (PT), doctor of chiropractic (DC), doctor of acupuncture/oriental medicine (DAOM)
If the idea of healing through touch appeals to you, becoming a PT, DC, or DAOM will allow you to work directly with patients to treat acute and chronic conditions. They each have a unique approach and philosophy to healing, and students often find they are more at home with one style of practice. Given the opioid crisis currently playing out across the U.S., providers who treat pain with nonpharmacologic modalities are becoming increasingly covered by insurances. As these treatment modalities become more acceptable options for pain, job opportunities are likely to increase further.
Doctor of podiatric medicine (DPM)
A Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM) specializes in care of the feet and ankles. People often take their feet for granted, until they develop conditions that affect their mobility and wellbeing. Podiatrists often deal with chronic health conditions, including peripheral vascular disease and diabetes. Their schooling requires an in-depth understanding of foot and ankle anatomy and physiology. They perform basic foot surgeries (bunionectomies, ingrown nails, correction of hammer toes, and removal of osteophytes, corns, neuromas, and bone spurs). To treat more complex conditions and patients with severe illnesses, they often refer to or co-manage with an orthopedic surgeon.
Doctor of optometry (OD)
A Doctor of Optometry (OD) is an eye specialist who prescribes glasses and contact lenses, removes foreign bodies from the eye, and in some states can do minor eye surgeries. As a OD, you will learn to detect and treat eye conditions before they become severe. Many times, it is an optometrist who picks up signs of diabetes or other conditions before a patient is aware of it and refers the patient to their physician for management. You can choose to work independently and see patients on your own or work closely with an ophthalmologist where you see patients pre- and postoperatively.
Allied health careers and reconsidering medicine
For those who have always dreamed of medical school, choosing another direction can be a difficult decision. If you applied to med school and were not accepted, maybe you simply need a new strategy for your MCAT prep, a stronger slant on your application, or better interviewing skills. If so, go ahead and seek these skills out. If you need to improve your GPA, consider doing a postbac or MS program to help you achieve this. However, if you feel you have maximized all potential areas of your application, you may be ready to look at other health careers.
At this point, it often takes an objective advisor to help you make good decisions. Friends, family, and even mentors, might not see the big picture. An advisor should be honest with you about your strengths and weaknesses and tell you what is needed to improve your application. Nobody wants to hear they aren’t likely to get accepted to medical school, but you might discover that an alternative to medical school is exactly what you were meant to do all along. On the other hand, you may decide to keep fighting for that med school acceptance. Either way, a big dose of self-awareness is called for.
Do you need help deciding between med school and an Allied Health Program? Reach out to an Accepted consultant who will guide you through the application process and help you find the best healthcare career path for you. Learn more about our services here.Dr. Suzi Schweikert has served on the UCSD School of Medicine’s admissions committee, and has mentored students in healthcare programs for over 20 years. She holds a BA in English Lit from UCLA, an MD from UCSD, and an MPH from SDSU. Want Suzi to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch with Dr. Suzi Schweikert.