Allied health is the delivery of health-related services that are distinct from medicine and nursing. Allied health professionals directly provide services to patients or serve in roles that support healthcare providers. While the term may seem new, the role has been integral to the healthcare system for many years.
This guide takes a closer look at allied health, how it differs from other healthcare professions and the career outlook for allied health professionals.
The Definition of Allied Health
Allied health professionals are integral to the treatment of patients, even though they work indirectly in the areas of medicine or nursing. They use the same scientific principles as other healthcare professionals in helping to diagnose, evaluate and treat diseases. Many health services are provided by allied health professionals filling non-nurse and non-physician-based roles.
ASAHP estimates that about 60% of the healthcare workforce can be classified as allied health professionals. Occupational therapists, nutritionists and radiologists are considered allied health professionals. Others include behind-the-scenes roles such as pharmacy technicians or medical laboratory scientists. Allied health professionals also work in consultative positions, including as genetic counselors and diabetes instructors.
Allied Health Professionals vs. Nurses
Allied health is a broad term that describes professionals who work within and alongside the medical community. The type of work they perform is different from that done by medical professionals such as doctors and nurses.
Some allied health roles do involve direct patient care, but other roles are more supportive. For example, a pharmacy technician will fill prescriptions and educate patients on the medicines they take.
If you work in imaging, you may take X-rays and perform other diagnostics to support the medical team in patient diagnosis and treatment.
The steps it takes to enter these careers are distinct from medical providers. The steps for becoming a nurse include earning at least a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree and becoming licensed. The path for allied health careers can also include earning an allied health degree. However, there are non-degreed allied health certifications that can prepare you to work in the healthcare field.
Types of Allied Health Careers
Allied health jobs are diverse and include a wide variety of roles. These include the following:
- Audiologists focus on issues relating to hearing, the ear and balance in terms of patient diagnostics and treatment. Their working environments can include schools and health-related retail stores.
- Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians may collect samples from a patient and perform tests. They typically work in hospitals, diagnostic labs and physician offices.
- Dental assistants help with patient records, scheduling and other limited patient care. They typically learn training on-the-job in dental clinics. No other formal training is required.
- Dental hygienists provide direct patient care, including examining patients for oral diseases and preventive care such as teeth cleanings.
- Exercise physiologists design fitness programs that help patients recover from injuries, disease and illness. They work for hospitals and clinics or may be self-employed.
- Medical sonographers and cardiovascular technologists and technicians use diagnostic imaging equipment to perform patient tests. They usually work in hospitals, doctors’ offices or laboratories.
- Nuclear medicine technologists administer radioactive drugs to patients used for imaging and treatment. This includes explaining procedures to patients, preparing radioactive drugs for use and supporting physicians in the diagnosis and treatment of patients.
- Athletic trainers often work in educational settings, hospitals, clinics and workout centers or for sports teams. They help prevent, diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses that affect bones and muscles.
- Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners often coordinate and provide specialty and primary care for patients. They work in varied settings, including hospitals, doctors’ offices and clinics.
- Occupational therapists treat a variety of patient injuries, disabilities and illnesses using therapeutic activities. They can work in schools, homes or any health-related institution.
Potential Benefits of Being an Allied Health Professional
Allied health career benefits include the diversity of roles that are available to you within the profession. Depending on the role, your work environment may not be limited to healthcare facilities. You can also select a career path with direct patient contact or indirect care roles.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employment within healthcare occupations in general is projected to grow 16% from 2020 to 2030. The BLS also projects that the industry will see an addition of about 2.6 million new jobs during that decade.
Allied health careers offer a high degree of flexibility compared to many other healthcare jobs. Allied health career training varies widely, from traditional degree programs to certifications.
While an audiologist, for example, may need a more traditional degree, a medical assistant or pharmacy technician may simply need certification. This can allow you to quickly gain the right allied health training to jumpstart your career.
Many people find working in healthcare rewarding. Those working in allied health jobs play a critical role in the care and treatment of patients.
They may touch every aspect of the healthcare industry, from offering diagnostic services to working alongside the medical team to improving patient outcomes and quality of life.
An allied health salary depends on many factors, including location, industry, experience, education level and the specific role. There is a large range of salaries within the allied health field. The median pay for audiologists in 2020 was $81,030 annually in May 2020, according to the BLS, while a dental assistant’s median salary was $41,180 per year.
Meanwhile, healthcare support positions had a median annual wage of $29,960 in 2020, the BLS reports. Healthcare support includes home health aides, medical transcriptionists and occupational therapy assistants.
As with all healthcare roles, a good base education and continuing education is a key component of any allied health career. This may include education that is specific to your field, such as learning new skills and procedures to help provide elevated levels of care.
Continuing to improve communication-related skills is also important since allied health careers involve communicating with patients and working with extended healthcare teams.
Last updated November 2021