Advice for College from Higher Ed Experts: Laurie N. Sherwen, Health Studies

Dean, Samson College of Health Sciences, University of the Sciences

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When it comes to studying the health sciences, it seems like doctors and nurses get all the attention. Of course, doctors and nurses rock, but what other health specialties are out there? We asked Laurie N. Sherwen, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., Dean of Samson College of Health Sciences at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to discuss some of the unique health care specialties students may study.

And if you have more questions you’d like to see answered by the experts, just check out our Ask the Experts section and send us your suggestions!

What are some of the health care specialties USciences’ students pursue?

USciences students pursue a variety of health care careers. Some of the most popular health professions for our students include:

Occupational Therapy: These professionals help individuals with physical and emotional illnesses to live to their highest potential in their “real world” environment. They work in hospitals, schools, community, home health, and nursing homes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a 33% increase in demand by 2020, and starting salaries range from $55,000–$70,000.

Physical Therapy: These professionals work with individuals with movement “impairments.” They work in hospitals, sports, outpatient clinics, home health, and nursing homes. BLS predicts a 30% increase in demand by 2020, and starting salary is $60,000–$75,000.

Physician Assistant: These are mid-level practitioners who practice medicine under the supervision of an M.D./D.O. They are trained in the medical model and work in every setting that an M.D. would work. BLS predicts a 39% increase in demand by 2020, and starting salary is $75,000 and up.

Exercise Science and Wellness Management: These professionals focus on prevention of illness and improving the quality of life for all populations. Undergraduate degrees provide a basis for advanced degrees as dieticians, exercise physiologists, PTs, OTs, and PAs. They work in a variety of settings, including corporate wellness, strength and conditioning, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and retirement villages. BLS predicts a 30% increase in demand by 2020, and starting salary is $44,000­­­–$50,000.

Health Sciences: This is the multidisciplinary student of community health, health services delivery, disease prevention, and health promotion throughout the life span. It serves as background for graduate work in medicine, public health, dentistry, social sciences, and other professions. It’s a good major for individuals who want a career in health professions but are not sure which one. Careers include athletic training, health administration, health promotion, public health education, and substance abuse prevention.

Medical Laboratory Sciences: These professionals conduct the behind the scenes work that allows for 70% of all diagnosis and diagnostic decisions in medicine—the medical detectives who discover what is causing a patient’s illness. Opportunities are in hospital, veterinary, crime (forensic), and other laboratories. Starting salary around $50,000.

What are some of the more unique careers in health care today?

The health care industry is the second-largest industry in the United States, with an estimated 17 million workers and under 10% comprising M.D.s. While most people think of health care careers as concentrating on medicine and nursing, there are a variety of other careers in the industry that have been around for decades. Such in-demand professions include audiology, pharmacy, nutrition, health informatics, public health, optometry, chiropractor, and podiatrist.

U.S.News & World Report reported a listing of the 200 best and worst jobs of 2012, ranked on the five criteria of physical demands, work environment, income, stress, and hiring outlook. Of the top (best) jobs listed, 12 were health professions. USciences includes five programs in the top 30 best jobs!

These professions are expanding for several reasons. Health care legislation is producing increased access to primary care and rehabilitation; the population is aging (baby boomers currently comprise 28% of the U.S. population and by 2020, there will be 55 million individuals over 65); survival has improved amongst individuals with strokes, head trauma, and returning veterans with profound injuries; and survival has improved amongst very low birth weight infants, especially multiple births with fertility treatments.

What kinds of students are drawn to the more “offbeat” path?

These are not “offbeat” careers, only lesser-known health careers. The same type of student drawn to medicine and nursing would also be drawn many of these careers. Students drawn to the physician assistant career would also be practicing medicine like a physician and would need the sciences acumen, and although supervised by a physician, the advantage is that they do not have the heavy debt burden that a physician would have. Students drawn to ESWM and PT would be interested in sports, physical activity, etc. OT students look more at the “whole individual,” similar to nurses; however, they do not need to deal with the physical issues, blood, and vomit that nurses deal with. Speech-language pathology is a great career very similar to OT. Health sciences, as mentioned, is great for the individual who is not sure which health profession they want. Many students would be “drawn” to these professions if they knew more about them.

How can students learn about and gain experience in a unique field before committing to the career?

They should begin their career in programs like a health sciences program or a pre-professional program that would expose science-based students to a variety of health professions, over and above nursing and medicine. Volunteering in health care environments as high school students would also expose these students to some of these wonderful professions.

What advice can you offer high school students considering the health sciences in general? Considering a unique specialty?

I would encourage students early in their high school career, or even before, who might be thinking about a health profession (including nursing or physician which they will likely be aware of) to go online and investigate sites that describe different health professions to see the full spectrum of health care careers.

Government sites like BLS describe many different health professions, and the Association of the Schools of the Health Professions (ASAHP) has brief information about the breadth of health professions. Specific professional organization sites, like American School Health Association (ASHA), provide good information for everything anyone wants to know about speech-language pathology and audiology.

Spending a “day in the life” and talking to individuals in these careers is a great way to learn more about a health care profession, especially if there is a specialty area that a student is interested in.

Hopefully, high school counselors are becoming more aware of health professions other than nursing and physician tracks through programs at local universities, such as the recent “Discover Series” on “in-Demand Health Professions” hosted by USciences Admissions Office, and can be a resource for students. Also, more attention in the media should help educate students.

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