The Value of Preventive Health: Degrees & Careers in Early Care

Preventive healthcare saves billions of dollars and millions of lives each year. Professionals with healthcare degrees and careers facilitate this care through education, screenings, and early intervention for chronic and acute conditions.

Last Updated: 11/02/2020
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No one likes going to the doctor. To many, seeing a physician means you have a problem, something is wrong, you’re sick. It’s why you self-medicate a nasty cold with a hot bath and honey-lemon tea, or ignore that weird bump on your neck because you had one last year and it went away on its own.

While the odds may be on your side, everyone faces illness at one point in their life. And though a visit to your GP may seem unnecessary or stressful, preventive checkups save millions of lives and billions of dollars each year. According to the American Public Health Association (APHA), “if preventive health screenings were to increase by 90% then several billion dollars usually spent on healthcare would be saved each year in the United States alone.”

Not all illness is preventable, but taking care of ourselves in specific ways can help reduce our chances of getting sick. The following guide discusses how you can better protect yourself, which major illnesses and diseases you should be aware of, the screenings used to detect them, and the career and degree paths you can follow to help others stay happy and healthy, too.

Colonoscopy

A colonoscopy is a procedure that allows a doctor to look inside your colon for unusual growths which could lead to colon cancer. It uses an endoscope which is a thin flexible tube with a tiny camera and a light attached to the end. If abnormal growths are found the physician can take a biopsy to be viewed by a pathologist and/or remove them to prevent them from becoming cancerous.

It is recommended that everyone over the age of 50 get a colonoscopy at least once every 10 years. If you have a family history of colon cancer or other conditions that affect your colon, such as inflammatory bowel disease or ulcerative colitis, then your doctor may recommend a screening more often. This procedure is typically performed in an outpatient hospital or ambulatory surgery center.

Source: Blue Cross MN

Colonoscopy-Related Careers & Degrees

Gastroenterologist

Gastroenterologist will be the one actually performing the colonoscopy and removing, if applicable, any abnormal growths found during the procedure.

Education & Training

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Medical school (4 years)
  • Residency in Internal Medicine (3 years)
  • Fellowship that includes training in endoscopy (2-3 years)
  • Specialty Certification Exam for Gastroenterologists granted by the American Board of Internal Medicine

Nurse Anesthetist

The nurse anesthetist is the medical professional that will administer the sedative (usually the drug propofol) you will take before the colonoscopy begins. They will also monitor your vital signs while the procedure is taking place to ensure you are safe and as comfortable as possible.

Education & Training

  • Bachelor’s degree in nursing or other appropriate major (4 years)
  • Unencumbered license as a registered nurse
  • 1+ years experience as registered nurse in a critical care setting
  • Master’s degree from an accredited nurse anesthesia program

Learn More

  • CRNA Programs Online: Learn what certified registered nurse anesthetists do, get details on the education and training needed, and see how campus, hybrid, and online CRNA programs work.
  • What is a Gastroenterologist: Click here to learn more about the doctor that will be performing the colonoscopy and the other duties they perform.
  • Understanding Colonoscopy: This page will help you understand everything you need to know about having a colonoscopy, including how to prepare for it and what will happen afterward.

Mammogram

A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast which can screen for abnormalities or breast cancer. Sometimes it can find results up to three years before anything is felt. A mammogram is performed by having the patient strip from the waist up. The x-ray technician will place the breast on a plastic plate and then will set another plate on top. The plates will flatten the breast and hold it still while the x-ray is being performed. The results will be read by a radiologist and will be reported to you and your primary care physician.

A mammogram is typically performed at a hospital, health clinic, or mammography center. It is recommended that women who are 50+ years old should get a mammogram every two years if they are in the normal risk range.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Mammogram-Related Careers and Degrees

Radiologist

The radiologist will read the results of the breast x-rays and will report the findings to the patient and their primary care doctor

Education & Training

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Medical school (4 years)
  • Residency in radiology
  • Certification exams through the American Board of Radiology

Radiologic Technologist

These professionals will be the ones to prepare the patient for x-rays, and they’ll actually operate the machinery and take the x-rays of the patient’s breasts, usually from at least two different angles

Education & Training

  • Minimum of an associate degree in radiology, program must be approved by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).
  • ARRT certification
  • State licensure

Learn More

  • Best Radiology Tech Programs: If you’re interested in becoming a radiologic technician this source will help you find the best education programs.
  • Radiology Careers: This is a great list of different careers in the radiology field and it lists their job duties, educational requirements, and career/salary outlook.
  • What is a Mammogram: The CDC thoroughly explains what a mammogram is and what you can expect to happen before, during, and after.

Dental Care

It’s common knowledge that brushing and flossing your teeth regularly can help keep your teeth and gums strong and healthy. There are other preventive measures that can help as well including x-rays which can help dentists spot cavities before they do too much damage, routine teeth cleanings that can help clean harder to reach spots in the mouth and therefore prevent tooth decay, and fluoride treatments in young children to strengthen the enamel in their teeth until they are old enough to see a dentist regularly.

Following a preventive dental routine will lower your chances of having cavities, gingivitis, enamel loss, and periodontitis. It is recommended that in addition to at-home brushing and flossing, everyone who has teeth, including young children, should see a dentist for a routine cleaning at least once or twice a year.

Careers & Degrees in Dental Care

Dentist

Dentists have the training to read dental x-rays, diagnose dental diseases, and identify mechanical procedures. They will be the ones who conduct patient exams and perform restorative dental procedures such as fillings and the removal of tooth decay.

Education & Training

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years) – it’s recommended that you choose a degree that covers courses in biology, anatomy, and chemistry.
  • Dental Admission Test (DAT) given by the American Dental Association (typically during your junior year of college).
  • School of Dentistry where you’ll earn a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) (4 years) – the last two years will be a dental internship.

Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists are responsible for gathering patient information, taking x-rays, performing routine teeth cleanings, assisting the dentist during dental procedures, and teaching patients how to properly brush and floss their teeth.

Education & Training

  • Minimum of an associate degree in dental hygiene from a program that’s accredited by the Commission of Dental Accreditation (CODA).
  • State licensure by passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination.
  • Dental hygiene license renewal every 1-3 years through continuing education hours

Learn More

  • How to Become a Dental Hygienist: Learn about everything that goes into becoming a dental hygienist, including the things you can expect to do and the education needed.
  • Dental Hygiene Programs Online: Some dental hygiene programs can be taken in an online or hybrid setting, depending on the training needed and the current credentials of the students. See if an online option is right for you.
  • Dentistry 101: This resource explains what a dentist is and offers additional information about dental schools and specialty options.
  • Dental Disease Protection: The American Dental Association describes in-depth how different preventive measures can protect teeth and reduce disease.

Skin Cancer Screening

A skin cancer screening is a visual examination of your skin either by yourself or by a healthcare provider. The screening should check any unusually sized, colored, textured, or shaped moles or birthmarks since these could indicate one of the three skin cancers. The two most common skin cancers are basal cell and squamous cell cancers that rarely spread and are usually curable. The third kind of skin cancer is called melanoma which is rarer but also more dangerous because it spreads easily. If skin cancer is suspected, a biopsy will be performed and tested.

There is not an overall recommendation for skin cancer screenings, but those with the following risk factors should keep in touch with your primary care provider and keep an extra eye out for potential cancer signs.

  • Light skin tone
  • Blonde or red hair
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Skin that burns and/or freckles easily
  • History of sunburns
  • Family and/or personal history of skin cancer
  • Frequent exposure to the sun through work or leisure activities
  • Large number of moles

If you are screening yourself, there is an easy way to remember the signs of melanoma (ABCDE). If any of the following is found, you should talk to your health care provider as soon as possible.

  • A for Asymmetry: the mole is oddly shaped and one half doesn’t match the other
  • B for Border: the border of the mole is ragged or irregular
  • C for Color: the color of the mole is uneven
  • D for Diameter: the mole is bigger than a pencil eraser or a pea
  • E for Evolving: the mole has changed shape, color, or size

Careers & Degrees in Skin Cancer Prevention

Dermatologist

This doctor specializes in skin abnormalities and will perform the actual skin examination, including using a dermascope to magnify the outer layers of your skin and removing all or part of suspicious spots to be biopsied.

Education & Training

  • Bachelor’s degree that includes courses in biology, chemistry, written and oral communication, and physics (4 years).
  • Pass the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)
  • Complete medical school (4 years)
  • Dermatology residency (3 years), during which doctors will become board certified and secure state licensure.

Medical Assistant

A medical assistant may help you make an appointment with the dermatologist, take your health history and vital signs when you get there, and assist the doctor with any procedures that are deemed necessary.

Education & Training

Learn More

  • How to Become a Physician Assistant: These health professionals often work with dermatologists in their offices, taking over a lot of their responsibilities. Read about what it takes to become a physician assistant.
  • How to Become a Dermatologist: Pretty much everything you need to know about the steps necessary to become a dermatologist.
  • Skin Cancer Screening: Medline Plus explains everything you need to know about skin cancer screenings.

Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm Ultrasound

The abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) ultrasound is painless and non-invasive. The patient will lay on their back while the ultrasound technician takes images and measurements of the abdominal aorta, which is a vessel that leads from the bottom of the heart toward the legs. The ultrasound can identify if there are any abnormalities in the abdominal aorta (usually a bulge of some kind) that can eventually rupture.

Older men (65+ years) are encouraged to have an AAA ultrasound at least once, especially if they did or still smoke or had a family member that experienced an AAA.

AAA-Relate Careers & Degrees

Sonographer

The sonographer will be the one to actually use the ultrasound machine to take pictures of the patient’s abdominal aorta.

Education & Training

  • Complete a 2-3 year diagnostic medical sonography (DMS) certification or degree that is accredited by the CAAHEP. This usually includes an extensive clinical internship.
  • Take the Sonography Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) exam and any specialty exams.

Vascular Surgeon

Although chances are small that a bulge will be found in the patient’s abdominal aorta (1%), if a large enough one were to be found patients would usually consult with a vascular surgeon to know if they should consider surgery to reinforce the bulging section of the vessel.

Education & Training

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Medical school (4 years)
  • Residency in general surgery (5 years)
  • Vascular surgery fellowship (2 years)

    Alternate: starting in 2006 students could choose an integrated approach which matched them directly into a vascular surgery residency which typically consists of two years in general surgery and three years in vascular surgery.

Learn More

Eye Health

Many eye diseases can go unnoticed for a long time, and the only way to discover them before they do too much damage is to have a comprehensive dilated eye exam by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. Treatment to prevent vision loss is most effective in the early stages of the disease.

During the exam, the doctor will put eye drops in your eyes to dilate your pupils so he can look inside them for signs of health problems. You will look at letters of different sizes so the doctor can see how clear your vision is and how far you can see. It is recommended that children have an eye exam at least once between 3-5 years old and that people with diabetes have an exam every year. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that African Americans over the age of 40 should have an eye exam every two years, and all other healthy adults should get a full eye exam every 5-10 years. That increases to every two years once adults hit age 65. Those with a family history of glaucoma should have eye exams every two years, regardless of age.

Even if it’s not the time for your regular eye exam, you should get your eyes checked out as soon as possible if you have any vision loss or pain, have double vision, floaters (tiny specks that appear to float in front of your eyes), halos around lights, flashes of light, or draining or redness of the eye.

Careers & Degrees in Eye Care

Ophthalmologist

An ophthalmologist will do your actual eye exam and give you any recommendations based on their findings. They will also talk about your options if they find any signs of disease. If surgery is required, they will be the ones to perform it.

Education & Training

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Medical school (4 years)
  • Internship (1 year)
  • Residency in ophthalmology (eye surgery)(3 years)

Ophthalmic Registered Nurse

These nurses work directly with an ophthalmologist and help administer eye exams, medications for eye diseases, and knowledge about the proper use of corrective lenses. They will help care for patients with a variety of problems and diseases including glaucoma, astigmatism, cataracts, macular degeneration, scratched corneas, and more.

Education & Training

  • Complete a 2- or 4-year degree in nursing (ASN or BSN)
  • Take and pass the NCLEX exam
  • After 4,000 hours of working in ophthalmology, earn a certification from the National Certification Board for Ophthalmic Registered Nurses.

Learn More

Routine Blood Tests

A blood test is usually done at specific labs where a phlebotomist will make you comfortable and draw a sample of your blood, usually from your arm. Blood tests may be ordered by your doctor for a number of different reasons, but not all of them are considered preventive. The following blood tests are some of the ones considered to be preventive by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force:

Cholesterol:

It’s recommended that all adults over age 20 should have their cholesterol (HDL/LDL levels and triglycerides) tested every 4-6 years. High cholesterol levels can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Glucose:

High glucose levels can lead to diabetes. It’s recommended that the following demographics have routine blood glucose level checks:

  • Adults ages 19-44 if they are overweight or obese
  • Women who have had gestational diabetes (diabetes that occurred during pregnancy)
  • All adults over age 45

Syphilis:

Though this blood test isn’t for everyone, it’s recommended that people who engage in high-risk sexual behavior be tested regularly. If left untreated, syphilis can lead to tumors, blindness, and paralysis.

Hepatitis B:

It is recommended that all pregnant women be tested for Hep B at their first prenatal visit. Hepatitis B is the most common serious liver infection and can lead to liver cancer or liver failure.

Hepatitis C:

It is recommended that every adult aged 18+ should get tested at least once in their lifetime. Having Hepatitis C leads to liver inflammation and sometimes serious liver damage.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV):

This virus causes AIDS which is a life-threatening disease that completely destroys the immune system. It’s recommended that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 gets tested at least once in their lifetime. If you engage in any of these risky behaviors, then you may want to get tested a second time.

Blood Work Degrees and Careers

Phlebotomist

These technicians will be the ones to actually draw your blood, label the vials, and get them sent off for testing.

Education & Training

  • High school diploma
  • Complete a phlebotomy training program (typically at community colleges and vocational schools)
  • Receive a Phlebotomy Certification from the National Phlebotomy Association (recommended, not required)

Medical Billing & Coding Specialist

Many preventive health measures are free under certain insurance, and the medical billing & coding specialists are the ones in charge of coding your preventive services correctly and getting hospitals and clinics reimbursed from health insurance companies.

Education & Training

  • Complete a Medical Billing & Coding certification (9 months to 1 year) OR an associate degree (2 years) OR a bachelor’s degree in health information management/healthcare administration. The program your choose should be accredited by the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) and/or the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA).
  • Pass the following exams:

    Certified Billing & Coding Specialist exam given by the National Healthcareer Association (NHA)

    Certified Professional Coder exam given by the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) and

    Certified Coding Associate exam given by the AHIMA

Learn More

  • Best Medical Billing & Coding Schools: This resource will help you choose the best program for you to join if you’re considering a career in medical billing & coding.
  • Preventive Care Benefits for Adults: This government resource lists all the preventive care benefits you can receive through Marketplace health plans and many other plans.
  • Phlebotomy Certification Online: Some coursework and exams in phlebotomy can be taken online, which is great for busy professionals. Read how it works and see if it’s right for you.

Reproductive Health for Women

There are many preventive measures that are free for women and most of them can be done at the same time during your yearly well-woman visit. Below are some of the measures in a little more detail:

  • Well-woman visits: it’s recommended that all women have a well-check visit every year to talk to their provider about their period, intercourse, birth control, possible pregnancy, STDs, and other important topics like drug use, illness, and infections.
  • Mammogram screening for breast cancer: please see the detailed section above that talks more about mammograms.
  • Cervical cancer screening: it is recommended that women aged 21 and older get a pap-smear/pap test starting at age 21 and have the test repeated every 3 years up to age 65.
  • Gestational diabetes screening: this is a screening specifically for pregnant women between 24-28 weeks gestation. A glucose test will be administered and then blood is drawn to test glucose levels in the woman’s blood.
  • Counseling for HIV, sexually transmitted infections, contraceptive methods, interpersonal and domestic violence, and anxiety: as needed.
  • Breastfeeding support, supplies, and counseling: everything to do with breastfeeding will be discussed both during pregnancy and after birth. Women will have access to professionals who can offer the needed breastfeeding supplies and additional knowledge and counseling that the woman deems necessary.
  • Screening for diabetes mellitus after pregnancy: for women with a history of gestational diabetes mellitus but haven’t previously been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes; should happen within the first year postpartum

Careers & Degrees in Women’s Health

Gynecologist/Obstetrician (OB/GYN)

Gynecologists know all things pertaining to a woman’s reproductive health whereas an obstetrician knows all things related to fertility and pregnancy. Many doctors choose to study both routes and can perform the necessary tests and administer the necessary treatments for your everyday health and your health during pregnancy.

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Medical school (4 years)
  • OB/GYN residency program (4 years)
  • Get board certified in Obstetrics & Gynecology by passing the certifying examinations given by the American Board of Obstetrics & Gynecology (ABOG).

Nurse Practitioner

Many women’s health nurse practitioners (WHNPs) work in private practices and assist the OB/GYN in caring for the women who come to the practice. They can give well-woman exams, breast cancer screenings, pap tests, and contraceptive care. They also provide pregnancy testing, fertility evaluation, prenatal visits, after-pregnancy care, and menopausal care.

Education & Training

Learn More

Osteoporosis Screening

A bone density test can diagnose osteoporosis before a bone is broken. The test can estimate the density of your bones and your risk of breaking a bone, which risk increases as your bone density decreases. The test uses a central dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) machine that looks at your spine and your hip bones to test for their bone density. It’s a non-invasive procedure and patients will be able to keep all of their clothes on as long as no zippers or buttons are in the way of the area being scanned. Standard x-ray machines cannot take the place of using a central DXA machine in this test since they can’t identify osteoporosis until the disease is well advanced.

A bone density test requires a prescription or recommendation from your healthcare provider and usually is received in a hospital’s radiology department, a private radiology group, or some specialized medical practices. The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) recommends that the following groups receive a bone density test:

  • Women over age 65 and men over age 70
  • People who have broken a bone after age 50
  • Women of menopausal age/postmenopausal women under age 65 with risk factors.
  • Men ages 50-69 with risk factors

Careers & Degrees in Osteoporosis

General Practitioner

General practitioners are often a patient’s home base when it comes to healthcare, and they’re the ones that will refer you out for certain tests and to specialists for procedures you may need. They will be the ones to recommend you for an osteoporosis screening and then will discuss the results with you.

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Medical school (4 years)
  • Internship and residency (3-8 years depending on their specialty)
  • Become board certified by taking and passing the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and any certifications required by your state.

Pharmacy Technician

If your bone density test shows you are at risk, then one of the treatments includes taking certain medications called bisphosphonates. Pharmacy techs are the ones who assist the pharmacist in labeling and packaging prescriptions, measuring medications, delivering medicines to patients, and organizing pharmaceutical inventories.

Education & Training

Learn More

  • Online Pharmacy Tech Schools & Programs: If you’re interested in a career as a pharmacy technician, this link provides information about the top pharmacy tech programs.
  • How to Become a General Practitioner: This how-to guide offers detailed steps of how to become a general practice medical doctor,
  • Bone Densitometry: this resource offers a very detailed report on everything you can expect from a bone density test, including how you can prepare and any associated risks

Prostate Screening

The choice to undergo a screening for prostate cancer is a personal one, and the discussion should happen between a patient and his doctor at age 50 if they are of average risk, or age 45 if the patient is African American or has a father or brother who was diagnosed with prostate cancer before age 65. The screening usually involves a blood test that detects a prostate-specific antigen (PSA), which levels are typically elevated if the patient has prostate cancer.

A digital rectal exam (DRE) may also be a part of the screening if the doctor deems it necessary. During a DRE exam, the doctor inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into the patient’s rectum to feel for any bumps or hard areas on the prostate that may be cancer. If prostate cancer is suspected then a biopsy of the patient’s prostate will be examined. The prostate screening will need to be repeated every one to two years depending on the results of the PSA test.

Careers & Degrees in Prostate Screening

Clinical Laboratory Scientist (CLS)

A CLS is a lab professional who will receive and test your blood sample before sending the results back to your doctor.

  • Bachelor’s degree in clinical/medical laboratory science (4 years)
  • 1 year of clinical experience.
  • Receive certification from the American Medical Technologists (AMT), the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification (BOC), or the National Registry of Microbiologists (NRM).
  • Any required state licenses (such as from the Department of Health)

Pathologist

A pathologist works in medical laboratories and collaborates with primary care physicians and specialists to rule out or identify diseases and conditions. If a prostate biopsy was necessary a pathologist would be the one to interpret the results.

Education & Training

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Medical school (4 years)
  • Pathology residency (4 years)
  • Fellowship if specializing (1-2 years)

Learn More

Immunizations

Vaccines provide critical protection against many crippling infections and diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, hepatitis, and more. Many children get their vaccines during their well-child visits during their early childhood years, but that’s not where vaccines should end. There are also vaccines recommended for the elderly and those that travel to certain places. The following vaccine schedules cover people of all ages:

Vaccines are normally distributed via a small needle in the patient’s arm, either directly into the muscle, the layers of the skin, or the connective tissue just beneath the skin. Occasionally there are vaccines that are administered through the mouth or nose. Sometimes vaccines can be combined to cut down on the number of injections necessary. These immunizations are usually administered by a pharmacist, medical assistant, nurse, or physician assistant in a doctor’s office, a pharmacy, health centers, or traveling immunization clinics.

Careers & Degrees in Vaccination

Public Health Educator

A public health educators are often behind the campaigns that spread relevant health information, especially preventive health information like the benefit of vaccines.

  • Bachelor’s degree in a health-education related field (Health Education, Community Health Education, Public Health Education, etc.).
  • Become a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) and, later, a Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES).

Pharmacist

A pharmacist is in charge of safely and effectively dispensing medication, and in this case, a pharmacist could also be one of the healthcare professionals that administers your vaccine.

Education & Training

  • 2-4 years of undergraduate coursework
  • Doctor of Pharmacy degree (PharmD) (4 years)

    Some schools offer early assurance programs that accept students directly out of high school and lets them complete their education in 6-7 years
  • Receive necessary certifications:

    Take the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX).

    Depending on the state where you’ll be practicing, take either the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE) or a state-administered pharmacy law exam.
  • Complete the number of hours of practical experience your jurisdiction requires. Many people meet this requirement while still in school.

Learn More

  • Public Health Degrees Online: Becoming a public health educator is a great way to inform others about the many ways they can prevent infection and disease, and this link lists the best public health degrees you can earn. 
  • Pharmacist Education Track: A more in-depth look at the education required to become a pharmacist.
  • Vaccines.gov: This is a great resource that includes information on what vaccines are recommended for you, where to get them, and how to pay for them.