How to Become a Healthcare Practitioner: Career Guide

Mar 03, 2020

Research the requirements to become a healthcare practitioner. Learn about the job description and duties and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a healthcare practitioner.

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Be a Healthcare Practitioner

Healthcare practitioners offer medical services in a wide variety of medical fields, including dentistry, physical therapy, athletic training and nursing. While there are a myriad of different fields to choose from, this focuses on becoming a physician. Physicians examine, diagnose and treat patients, often prescribing medication or lifestyle changes. Many work in a specialty area, such as pediatrics, oncology, obstetrics, or cardiology.

Physicians often work in a hospital or medical clinic. They might practice independently or as part of a group practice. Although they are often well compensated, these medical professionals often have to work long hours and can be on call to treat patients during evening or weekend hours. They can also be exposed to contagious illnesses while seeing their patients. Education, training and licensing requirements vary greatly between healthcare specializations and can take prospective professionals 2-8 or more years of schooling.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.)
Degree Field Medicine
Licensure/Certification Licensure required; certification voluntary
Experience Residency required
Key Skills Active listening, speaking, critical thinking, writing, complex problem-solving, science, service, monitoring, judgment, and decision-making skills; knowledge of accounting, Internet browser, medical, and Microsoft Office software; possess dexterity, patience, physical stamina, and empathy
Salary $200,890+ (2018 median salary for all physicians and surgeons)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net Online, American Medical Association

A career as a health care practitioner requires active listening, speaking, critical thinking, and writing skills. Manual dexterity is important, as well as patience, physical stamina, and the ability to express empathy. Doctors practice complex problem solving, judgment and decision-making. Experience in health care is required and candidates must complete a period of residency, where they practice their chosen specialty under the supervision of an experienced, licensed physician. This occupation also typically requires a knowledge of accounting software, Internet browser software, medical software and Microsoft Office software. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in May 2018 that the median salary for physicians and surgeons was $200,890 or more. Pay can vary by area of practice.

Steps to Be a Healthcare Practitioner

There is a well-defined career path with several formal steps to employment as a health care practitioner.

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

Those aspiring to become physicians first need to complete a bachelor's degree. A certain major is not necessary, although students should complete coursework in English, biology, physics and chemistry while earning their bachelor's degrees.

Volunteer at a clinic or hospital. Students can get real world experience by volunteering at a local health clinic or hospital, which can help them in their careers in medicine.

Step 2: Take the MCAT

In order to apply for medical school, students need to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This is a standardized, multiple-choice test that nearly all U.S. medical schools require for entrance. It is designed to test students' critical thinking and problem solving skills and knowledge of scientific concepts related to the study of medicine. Students can prepare for the test by taking practice tests and ordering study guides that can be found on the website for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Step 3: Attend Medical School

Students in both Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) programs spend the first two years learning practical skills, including diagnosing illnesses. They also take classes in areas such as pharmacology and anatomy and spend time working in laboratories. During the second two years, students work under physician supervision in a series of clinical rotations and learn practical skills for working with patients.

Step 4: Enroll in a Residency Program

After completing medical school, graduates must choose a specialty before enrolling in a residency program. The number of years required for residency training is different for each specialty. Three years of training in a residency program is required for pediatrics, family practice, and internal medicine specialties, while general surgery requires five years of training. Other areas of specialization include emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, pediatrics, and cardiology.

After completing a residency program, students can get more training during a fellowship in a subspecialty area such as child psychiatry or gastroenterology, a subfield of internal medicine.

Step 5: Meet Licensing Requirements

In order to provide medical services to the public, physicians must be licensed. Although requirements differ from one state to another, they must at least graduate from medical school and pass an examination for licensure. Prospective M.D.s need to pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). To practice as a D.O., individuals must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA).

Step 6: Participate in Continuing Education

As technology increases and advancements are made in the medical field, it is vital that physicians stay up-to-date within their specializations. Continuing education coursework is required of all physicians and by various certification boards, though the number of units, frequency and type of courses required or accepted varies by state and certifying entity.

Step 7: Consider Board Certification

Board certification in a medical specialty is voluntary and is intended to demonstrate expertise in a specialty. Currently, there are 24 member boards that approve more than 145 medical specialties. Areas include anesthesiology, internal medicine, orthopedics, urology and dermatology, to name just a few. Certification is conferred by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) after completion of all training, including the residency. Individuals must pass a written and, in some cases, oral exam. Board certification can make physicians stand out and get recognition from peers, which may lead to career advancement within the medical community.

There are many occupations that fall into the category of healthcare practitioner and physician is a familiar one. The career path requires completion of a bachelor's degree program, MCAT testing, four years of medical school, and several years of residency training, the length of which varies by specialty. Licensing is required, criteria varies by state. Board certification in an area of practice, such as orthopedics, can boost career prospects and continuing education is crucial.

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