A Guide to Confusing (but Promising) Healthcare Jobs

Beyond registered nurses and physicians, there are favorable healthcare jobs not well understood.

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Thanks to this defibrillator of a recession, healthcare's future has a beat. Not long ago, the sector seemed statistically doomed: Baby boomers were about to hit medical care providers with a double whammy—retiring from their jobs as nurses and doctors and aging their way into hospitals and clinics in waves as patients. The recession seems to have caused something of a reprieve, as older workers delay retirement, healthcare demand slows, and unemployed workers consider new careers in the promising field.

For people looking to join the healthcare field, however, the array of possible occupations can be mind-boggling, and the job titles often read like medical gibberish. Here's a brief guide to six promising healthcare jobs you may not know much about.

Dosimetrist: This job is critical to the treatment of cancer. As members of the radiation oncology team, dosimetrists are responsible for calculating and measuring the dose of radiation that will be used for treatment. They work with the radiation therapist, medical physicist, and radiation oncologist to determine the best treatment plan for their patient. "Medical dosimetry is a great field for people to go into," says Karen Mote, director of Allied Health Group, a Norcross, Ga.-based healthcare staffing firm. On-the-job training to become a dosimetrist may be possible for a person already working as a radiation therapist. Formal dosimetrist study programs may require either work history as a radiation therapist or a bachelor's degree in the physical sciences.

Phlebotomist: If you faint at the sight of blood, this probably won't be a good career choice for you. (Indeed, you may want to use extreme caution in choosing a career from the healthcare field.) Phlebotomists are medical technicians who draw blood. The required training programs range from a single semester to a full year of study, so it can be a good choice for people with only high school diplomas. The pay is pretty well in line with the briefer amount of required training—about $11 to $12 an hour, according to Labor Department data.

Cytotechnologist: This job requires an interest in the details and patterns of the human body at a cellular level. Cytotechnologists examine human cells under a microscope for signs of malignancy, infection, and other diseases. They work side by side with pathologists to determine a diagnosis of abnormalities. To get hired as a cytotechnologist, you are likely to need a bachelor's degree in cytotechnology or a similar subject. Keep in mind that some states have licensing requirements.

While checking out cytotechnology, take a look at the entire range of lab technology careers. "Lab technologists are unsung heroes," says Irina Lutinger, senior administrative director of the clinical laboratories at New York University Hospitals Center and board member of the American Society for Clinical Pathologists. Lutinger says an impending worker shortage has been slowed by the recession, but there is still a minimal number of incoming lab technologists compared with the retirement rate. Lab technology is the "backbone of medicine," Lutinger says, noting that 70 percent of physician decisions are based on lab data.

Nurse practitioner: Americans pay nearly 600 million visits to nurse practitioners each year, according to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. They head to an NP for services similar to a physician's—diagnosing and treating conditions, prescribing medication, and ordering tests—in various settings, such as clinics, hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. NPs are registered nurses who have advanced degrees and other qualifications that meet states' nurse practitioner licensing requirements. The recent trend of in-store medical clinics may put you in touch with a nurse practitioner. Many employ NPs to give shots or prescribe antibiotics. The outlook for this job is especially bright, as more patients look to nurse practitioners to serve as primary-care providers at a lower cost than a physician. While the growing use of practitioners has been especially prominent in rural communities, Mote says the trend has recently been accelerating in urban areas, as well. There were nearly 350 postgraduate nurse practitioner programs offered in 2006, according to Labor Department data.