Allied Health Degrees

The Basics

Pursuing a college degree is an excellent means of preparing oneself for better employment and better pay later in life. In fact, according to US News & World Report, college graduates make, on average, $20,000 more per year than workers that have only a high school education.

However, earning more money isn’t the only reason why people seek to obtain a college degree. Many students wish to improve themselves and acquire skills that allow them to help others as well, be that as a medical assistant, an optometrist, a speech pathologist, a mental health counselor, or a pharmacy technician.

Naturally, some college programs – like those just listed – are better suited to developing students into professionals whose aim is to provide services that help others. Allied health, a broad collection of degree programs related to the health care field, is one of them.

What is Allied Health?

In the strictest sense, allied heath can be defined as professions in the health industry that do not include medical doctors or nurses. For the purposes of the United States federal government, an “allied health professional” is defined as follows:

  • Holds an allied health professions degree or certificate from an accredited higher education program
  • Is employed by a local, state, federal, or tribal health agency in which patients require health care services

More broadly, allied health professionals are in the business of using science and evidence-based practices to perform a variety of health-related tasks. This includes evaluating patients, diagnosing their condition, and treating patients for a wide-range of health-related difficulties, from hearing problems to chronic diseases to dental issues to sports related injuries.

Likewise, allied health professionals work to promote healthy lifestyles through wellness programs and administration of health care systems, as well as work to understand diseases and how to best prevent their spread. Some allied health employees work behind the scenes in positions in research or laboratories, conducting research on health-related subjects. Other allied health employees work directly with individuals to improve that person’s life and ability to function.

Popular allied health professions range from physical therapy and occupational therapy to dieticians and exercise physiologists to emergency medical technicians and mental health counselors. To say that allied health is a wide and varied area of employment is an understatement, as estimates are that up to 60% of health care related professions fall under the umbrella of allied health.

What is an Allied Health Degree?

An allied health degree is a 2-4 year educational program that prepares students to work in a variety of health-related fields, though some professions in the allied health area require additional schooling, be that a master’s degree, a doctoral degree, certification or licensure, or continuing education programs that are specific to the particular allied health occupation.

The basic type of degree in allied health is an associate’s degree. It’s best to think of this degree program as an introduction to the field of allied health. As such, these two-year programs tend to have minimal admissions requirements, like having a high school diploma or GED and a satisfactory GPA, usually 2.0 or above.

Associate’s degree programs focus on a general overview of knowledge and skills that can be applied to a variety of allied health careers. It’s also prudent to think of an associate’s degree as a stepping-stone to a bachelor’s degree, as an associate’s degree typically fulfills the general education requirements of a bachelor’s program with around 60 credit hours of coursework. That coursework might include:

  • General education courses – such as English composition, social sciences, arts and humanities are required to help develop students into well-rounded individuals.
  • Interpersonal communication – which helps students develop the skills required to actively listen to people, develop an understanding of their problems and perspective, and speak clearly and understandably to others.
  • Mathematics – depending on the particular area of focus, students in associate’s degree programs in this field will likely have to complete 2-3 courses in mathematics and statistics.
  • Science – because all allied health degree programs have a science focus, associate’s degree programs require multiple science courses, including, but not limited to, introductions to biology, chemistry, physics, and anatomy and physiology.

A bachelor’s degree program in allied health takes a student’s learning a step further, building off of the introductory coursework students completed in an associate’s degree program and building a focus on allied health topics specifically.

To gain admission to a bachelor’s degree program, students must have a sufficient GPA, satisfactory SAT or ACT scores, and hold a high school diploma, a GED, or an associate’s degree from an accredited institution. Once admitted, allied health students usually have to complete approximately 120 credit hours of study (or, if they already have an associate’s degree, about 60 credits of coursework) to obtain their degree.

Coursework at the bachelor’s degree level is much more focused on the specific degree program. This might include advanced studies in:

  • Biology – students learn about the structures and systems of living organisms, and likely take coursework in specialized areas of biology like microbiology, biochemistry, cell biology, and biophysics.
  • Chemistry – students learn how to identify specific substances, investigate their characteristics, and learn how to manipulate them.
  • Human behavior – students learn topics related to psychology, sociology, and human interaction in an effort to understand why people behave the way they do.
  • Ethics – students acquire skills that aid them delivering services in a humane and ethical manner while also developing an understanding of privacy, confidentiality, and treating others in a way that is respectful.

What is the Difference Between an Associate and Bachelor’s Degree in Allied Health?

The primary difference between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree in allied health is the length of time that’s required to obtain the degree. In the case of the former, typically two years is sufficient for completing one’s studies. However, in the case of the latter, at least four years is generally needed to complete one’s studies.

Another major difference between these degrees is the extent and level of one’s studies. Where an associate’s degree program focuses more on general studies at an introductory level, a bachelor’s degree program includes more focused, upper-level coursework specific to allied health, especially in the third and fourth years of one’s studies.

For example, where a student in an associate’s degree program might take an introductory biology course, a student in a bachelor’s degree program might take microbiology, anatomy and physiology, and biochemistry.

Once studies are completed, students that hold an associate’s degree will further find a difference in the types of jobs for which they qualify and the annual income they can expect. Students that hold a bachelor’s degree outpace their associate’s degree counterparts on both fronts, and are able to choose from a wider range of jobs and for more money.

What is an Online Allied Health Degree Program?

Online allied health degree programs offer similar coursework and learning experiences as degree programs on traditional college campuses, but with the obvious benefit of being more flexible regarding one’s learning schedule. Typically, online degree programs allow students to work at their own pace, with courses that have deadlines for assignments, exams, and so forth, but might not have required meeting times like on-campus classes.

That flexibility means that online allied health degree programs are suited well to students that have work or family requirements that preclude them from attending classes on campus. What’s more, because students can pursue their studies from home, they don’t have to worry about long commutes, putting miles on their vehicle, or paying for extra fuel for their car, maintenance, parking, and the like.

Additionally, online programs allow students to conduct their studies from anywhere in the world, so long as they have an internet connection. That makes online learning a great option for students that are required to travel for their current job or for students that simply enjoy traveling.

One note, however, is that the majority of online degree programs in this field are limited to bachelor’s degree programs, associate’s degree programs, and certificate programs. Studies that require graduate or doctoral degrees, internships, or other advanced studies – like physical therapy – typically cannot be offered online.

What Does it Take to Get a Degree in Allied Health?

Because careers in the allied health field are often demanding, high-paced, and stressful occupations, a student must learn how to deal with those factors in their educational and training programs. Likewise, with an emphasis on science, medicine, research, and health-related issues, students pursuing a degree in allied health must develop expertise in those fields.

Common personal traits and skills that are helpful for students seeking an allied health degree include:

  • Math and science aptitude: Most allied health education programs are heavily involved in math and/or science. As a result, students must have the requisite analytical, research, and problem-solving skills that are often needed for satisfactory completion of math and science courses.
  • Detail oriented: Students must be able to track data and keep detailed records. Students must also be able to organize highly detailed information and analyze it to better understand the problem at hand.
  • Compassion and empathy: Since many allied health workers work with ill and injured individuals, students pursuing a degree in this area must be able to engage with others in a way that’s compassionate, comforting, and understanding.
  • Problem-solving: No matter whether a student wants to be a physical therapist, an exercise physiologist, a medical assistant, or something in between, they must develop strong problem-solving skills that allow them to observe problems, devise possible solutions, and put plans into motion to resolve the problem.
  • Interpersonal skills: Allied health students must acquire strong speaking and listening skills and be able to communicate effectively with a wide variety of people, from children to the elderly. Students also need to be able to communicate with individuals that may have difficulty communicating via traditional means or that might be unable to communicate at all.

What Can You Do With a Degree in Allied Health?

As noted earlier, the field of allied health is expansive, so there are dozens and dozens of potential job opportunities. Among the most popular are:

Physical Therapist: Workers in this field concentrate on helping patients that are ill or injured to improve their ability to move and manage the pain they experience from their illness or injury. Physical therapists often work as part of a larger team of allied health professionals to devise and carry out a program of treatment and rehabilitation for patients.

Dietician and Nutritionist: Allied health professionals that work as dieticians and nutritionists use their expertise and knowledge of food to help individuals and groups make improved decisions regarding the type and amount of food they eat. Dieticians and nutritionists don’t just concentrate on recommending a balanced diet; instead, they also advise patients on how to manage disease, prevent disease, and meet their goals related to health and well-being.

EMTs and Paramedics: Among the most stressful and exciting allied health professions is being an EMT or paramedic. These workers respond to emergencies and provide critical care to wounded and ill patients on the scene and in transit as they transport the patient to a medical facility for treatment by a physician.

Athletic Trainer: Individuals that work as athletic trainers are charged with using their knowledge and skills to prevent, diagnose, and treat injuries and illnesses related to sports. This includes evaluating injuries and providing emergency care, designing and implementing rehabilitation programs for injured athletes, and researching and designing ways to prevent injuries in the context of sports activities.

How Much Can You Earn With a Degree in Allied Health?

Because allied health careers are so widely varied, the salary one can expect to earn is also widely varied. Not only does the salary depend on the specific allied health occupation, but it also depends on the level of education and experience of the worker, as well as the employment setting and even the state in which the person works.

For example, a pharmacy technician, on average, earns just under $32,000 per year after completing a bachelor’s degree or a certificate program. However, pharmacy technicians in Washington State earn over $40,000 per year, and pharmacy technicians employed by the federal government make nearly $42,000 per year.

On the other hand, medical and clinical laboratory technologists earn an average salary of $60,560 per year with just an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree. Those wages increase to nearly $72,000 per year for laboratory technologists employed in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry and to more than $80,000 per year for laboratory technologists that work in California.

One of the highest paying allied health fields is occupational therapy, with an average annual salary of $80,000. However, occupational therapists, unlike pharmacy technicians and laboratory technicians, must have at least a master’s degree to practice. That means that more time and expense is required before one can reap the benefits of a higher annual wage.

Nevertheless, occupational therapists can make six-figure incomes, particularly if they work in the research and development services sector.

The takeaway is that the earning potential for an allied health profession is hard to pin down. But regardless of the profession one chooses, the more education, training, and experience one has, the higher one’s income will be.

What Degrees are Similar to Allied Health?

Doctor of Dentistry: Like allied health programs, doctor of dentistry programs prepare students to provide competent, safe health care services to their patients. Dental programs typically require students to hold a bachelor’s degree and have a passing score on the Dental Admissions Test. However, unlike some allied health degrees, dentists are required to complete doctoral studies in dental school, which leads to one of three degrees: a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), Doctor of Medical Dentistry (DMD), or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM). Afterward, a 2-4 year residency period is common.

Massage Therapy: Massage therapy programs help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed to treat and prevent injuries. These programs focus heavily on science and health related issues, not unlike allied health programs. Also similar to allied health programs is the fact that students can specialize in a particular area, like a certain modality or type of massage. Typically, massage therapists must complete training programs or certificate programs, meaning they often have less schooling required than many allied health professions.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing: Students that are drawn to helping professions related to health care should consider a degree in nursing. A popular program is the bachelor of science in nursing degree, which includes coursework in microbiology, chemistry, psychology, anatomy and physiology, and psychology, to name a few. Like many allied health programs, nursing programs also include supervised clinical experiences that give students real-world experience working with actual patients.

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