The health care industry is booming. Employment in the field is expected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That would add 2.3 million new jobs — more than in any other industry. Here's what you need to know to get into the industry.
At George Washington University Hospital, Thursday is wing day. By 5 a.m., food service workers have prepared piles of chicken in anticipation of the lunch rush, when staff members, doctors and visitors pack the cafeteria. Other cooks keep busy filling orders patients make using their personalized diet plans.
Hospitality jobs are not the first that spring to mind when considering hospital careers, a category more obviously associated with doctors and nurses. Yet they make up some of the 2,300 non-physician jobs at GW Hospital, the majority of which belong to workers other than nurses. Every day, data analysts, housekeepers, social workers, chaplains and information technology specialists come to work at the hospital — and on Thursdays, many eat wings prepared by the culinary team.
“It’s really like a little city,” says Alicia Brill, the hospital’s human resources director.
The health care industry is booming. Employment in the field is expected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That would add 2.3 million new jobs — more than in any other industry.
But even job seekers whose life-science skills aren’t especially strong stand to benefit from this bonanza. Modern hospitals and other providers strive to offer top-notch customer service, making professionals in the fields of business, communications and technology essential, says Amy Goble, vice president of healthcareercenter.com, the job board for the American Hospital Association.
“Health care organizations are in a much broader way working to serve the patient as a consumer,” she says.
And because the industry offers upward mobility, even entry-level health care work has the potential to lead to a well-paying position.
Understanding what’s driving this health care employment explosion, where exactly the opportunities lie and what skills are needed to seize them is key to launching a great career in the field.
Health care industry growth is driven in part by the graying of the U.S. population. Baby boomers, who now account for more than 60 million people, are now ages 53 through 71, says Peter Rogerson, demographics expert and professor of geography at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
“That’s a lot of people aging into years where they need more health care,” he says. “That’s a big driver of demand for services.”
New opportunities are also arising from corporate mergers and acquisitions. These have resulted in fewer hospitals, creating room for the emergence of “retail medicine,” where patients seek care at storefront clinics, says Michael Broscio, director of the Career Resource Center for the American College of Healthcare Executives.
For example, major retail pharmacy CVS is on the brink of a merger with health insurance company Aetna. That could elevate the importance of pharmacies in the care delivery ecosystem, making drug stores the new employment frontier.
Some pharmacies already provide many of the services typically associated with physicians‘ offices, offering vaccines, prescribing medicine and testing cholesterol and bone density. Others run public health programs, like cooking classes for people with diabetes. Pharmacies may be especially essential in rural regions that lack other options.
” Pharmacists are sometimes the only accessible primary care provider in some areas,” says Diana Courtney, director of student and professional affairs and committees for the National Community Pharmacists Association.
Technological advancements are a third driver of employment opportunity. New machinery, digital tools and data repositories require the expertise of new kinds of professionals. The growing field of telemedicine, for instance, will require workers who are comfortable communicating — and sometimes even performing surgery — remotely.
“Technology is getting so specialized, so there’s demand for people to understand and use that equipment,” Rogerson says.
There’s concern in many industries that artificial intelligence and machines will take jobs away from humans, and health care is no exception. Some roles may eventually be eliminated due to automation, as has occurred to many factory positions in the manufacturing sector. Already, algorithms are able to accurately read medical scans and detect cancer cells.
Yet aspiring radiologists shouldn’t panic, says Darren Dworkin, chief information officer of Cedars-Sinai Health System in Los Angeles. It’s more likely that technology will enhance health care jobs by reducing time spent on tedious tasks than replace many positions entirely, he explains.
And other experts predict that so-called “caring” jobs will always need humans to fill them because patients prefer human touch and empathy.
“When someone says they had a great experience at GW Hospital, that’s usually because there’s someone they made a connection with,” Brill says. “That’s not a technology-driven thing.”
Today, health care offers young professionals a “career lattice” with many entry points, says Jack Schlosser, who helps health care institutions attract executive leaders as senior director at consulting firm Spencer Stuart.
Many future job vacancies will be for support roles, like home health aide and medical transcriptionist. In fact, the occupation of personal care aide is projected to add more jobs than any other profession by 2026. These roles have low barriers to entry, some requiring only high school diplomas. But they also have low salaries; the BLS puts the median wage of health care support occupations at $27,910, lower than the national annual median wage for all occupations of $37,040.
Yet the health care industry provides low-skilled workers with pathways for professional growth and chances to learn on the job, experts say. Many positions at George Washington University Hospital don’t require a bachelor’s degree, such as administrative assistant, telephone operator, case management associate, lab aide, cook and patient sitter. They may provide more satisfaction than equivalent positions in other industries, since they are mission-focused and offer chances to interact with patients, Brill posits.
Perhaps more importantly, people hired into those roles have opportunities to advance into more senior positions. For example, GW Hospital hires some nurses who only have associate’s degrees and helps them earn bachelors of science in nursing degrees. Indeed, nursing has one of the “best developed career ladders of any profession” because it has well-established transition programs that help people earn advanced credentials and attain higher salaries, according to a 2017 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
“Seeing somebody move from an entry-level job to a very specialized skilled job is a beautiful thing,” Brill says.
The health care technology sector provides opportunities for growth, too. Information technology hiring managers previously sought “technical wizards,” but these days, they’re more interested in job candidates who understand the needs and workflows of the nurses and lab technicians who will ultimately use tech tools on a daily basis, Dworkin says. “Folks who come from entry-level jobs in delivery are so well-positioned to learn the technology,” he explains. At his hospital, more than 20 percent of the IT department staff come from clinical backgrounds.
Once people move up from entry-level jobs, either through education or work experience, health care careers can be lucrative. Skilled practitioners and technical experts make median annual salaries of $63,420, according to the BLS, 71 percent more than the national median annual wage. And these positions are in demand: The occupation of registered nurse, for example, is expected to add 437,000 new jobs by 2026.
When asked what skills will make young people competitive in the health care industry, Dworkin doesn’t hesitate to answer: “Data, data, data.”
Health systems have spent the past five years compiling treasure troves of information, and “what really lies ahead is leveraging that data and providing the right information back to our end users to influence decision-making,” he explains. “There are unbelievable opportunities in the pure data science world.”
Job seekers with data analysis skills will be in great demand. So, too, will be creative people who can turn data into attractive visualizations, compelling stories or persuasive social media posts.
There’s more power in a report “presented in a visually engaging way for a physician” than “a report only a programmer could love,” Dworkin says.
Protecting patients’ digital health records is another top priority, making the cybersecurity field a hot job market at both hospitals and the companies that sell them services.
“Health systems are custodians of trust, and we need to make sure we protect that data,” Dworkin says.
So-called “soft skills” matter, too. The rapidly changing industry requires people with “adaptability, agility, comfort dealing with ambiguity and flexibility,” Schlosser says. “If someone is great at leading, strong in communication skills and able to deal with a diversity of challenges,” he or she will “have great demand.”
At GW Hospital, Brill says, there’s one quality that trumps all others: compassion. Logistics managers, security officers, patient advocates, and yes, even chefs need it to help the hospital fulfill its mission.
“People come to us at their most vulnerable,” she explains. To provide patients with the best care, “there is a level of integrity that someone has to bring.”
Top Takeaways for Starting a Health Care Career
— Look for job postings at doctor’s offices, clinics, hospitals and pharmacies.
— If you have a high school diploma, consider attaining a license or certificate in a specialty health care discipline.
— If you’re attending college, take courses in data analysis, computer science, information technology or cybersecurity.
— If you have an entry-level job, look for training programs that will position you for job advancement opportunities.
— During the hiring process, demonstrate communication skills, comfort with technology, compassion and flexibility.
Career Spotlight: Medical Physicist
John Muryn, 27, found his entree into health care through medical physics, which applies the principles of physics to imaging and cancer treatment. The field requires a graduate degree, a residency and several board exams.
Muryn decided to pursue the career during his senior year of college, where he was majoring in physics. He hadn’t heard of medical physics before doing internet research about how to apply his degree outside of academia.
“What really struck a chord with me was the fact that what I was doing would be involved in health care and benefiting an individual in some capacity,” he says.
As a diagnostic medical physicist, Muryn ensures that radiology equipment, such as MRI, CT, radiography, fluoroscopy, mammography and ultrasound machines, are safe to operate and functioning properly. His work varies daily and includes duties like discussing technology regulations with clients and traveling to hospitals to analyze equipment.
Working with technology that is “cutting-edge in the field” keeps Muryn’s job exciting, as does the fact that the regulations governing it keeps changing.
“It’s dynamic from day to day, which I really enjoy,” he says.