2016 was a tough year for Marie. At 66 years old, a severe case of hydrocephalus and a debilitating colon blockage made her a regular at the ER. In a span of just two weeks, neurosurgeons had inserted a shunt to drain the fluid on her brain, and GI specialists had flushed out the debris that made even the smallest of meals something to fear. But when I asked Marie what she remembered the most about those experiences, it wasn’t the headaches or the constipation or the 24/7 stabbing sensation in her abdomen. It was Liz, the CNA, who held her hand during 2am vitals and left cards at her bedside before she finished her shift.
In 2014, the Australian College of Nursing asked its first-year students why they chose nursing. When reviewing those answers, the College found the most commonly used words to be “helping, caring, difference, and others.” But making a difference in people’s lives can be easier said than done. Life happens, overtime happens, working six 10’s in a row happens. It could’ve been easy for Liz to rush in and out of Marie’s room every night with little care and no cards, but she didn’t. Not once. If you’re considering a career in healthcare, learn how and why making a difference matters, and how finding and focusing on your purpose can help you be better for yourself and for your patients.
Finding (and Focusing on) Your Purpose
What motivates people to go into healthcare? For some it may be job security and professional growth. For others, it may be the paycheck and the flexibility of training. These economic factors certainly hold weight, but for many in the field, there’s a non-monetary reason that pulled them in: a sense of pride after helping a family member recover from surgery, or simply learning they had an aptitude for working with the elderly. Motivations may vary by person, but they can bring focus, drive, and meaning to a career. Here are a few common sources of motivation for entering medical and health. What’s yours?
For some, a medical event in their family or circle of friends can make such an impact on an individual that they decide to devote their lives to caring for others. Perhaps someone’s sister died of leukemia as a child, making the person realize that they wanted to work in a children’s hospital.
Passion can play a large role when it comes to making career decisions. Some individuals may recognize their love of animals early on and decide they want to work in the veterinary medicine field, while others may find that they love seeing the world and want to work as a travel nurse.
Some people realize early on that they possess a specific skill that translates well to a medical profession. As an example, they may realize that they possess steady, flexible hands that would serve them well in the world of dental hygiene.
Whether they feel drawn to children living in poverty in an inner-city, veterans struggling with PTSD and other injuries sustained on the battlefield, or malnourished mothers living in developing countries, some individuals know they want to work with a specific population early on in their medical education/career.
If you feel drawn to working with specific populations or communities, the following section takes a look at how you can make the biggest difference.
Making a Difference with Patients
No matter which medical career you choose, you can make a difference with patients. Some professionals may decide to work with a variety of patient populations, while others may gravitate toward one in particular. If the latter sounds more like you, here’s a closer look at some of the patient groups that draw specialized care, as well as the popular career tracks that can put you in a position to help them.
Few sweeter moments exist than when a baby first enters the world. Helping infants and parents navigate those first few days, weeks, and months after birth means ensuring that newborns and new moms receive the care they need during a critical time. Some of the ways medical professionals help babies include ensuring smooth deliveries, monitoring their health after birth, checking for any developmental issues, and teaching parents how to provide care. Even though babies are tiny, they need a lot of medical attention during their first season on this planet to ensure they are healthy and happy.
So how can you help? While pediatricians and OB-GYNs may first come to mind, numerous support roles also exist. Some of these include pediatric nurse, pediatric nurse practitioner, neonatal nurse, labor and delivery nurse, doula, midwife, lactation consultant, pediatric physical therapist, and infant massage therapist.
Working with children can provide tremendous job satisfaction. You get the chance to watch kids learn, grow, mature, and, most importantly, stay healthy and safe throughout adolescence. Medical professionals who work with kids may help them address stammers or stutters as a speech and language pathologist, help keep their teeth and gums healthy as a dental hygienist, ensure they get eat the right foods as a pediatric nutritionist, or help keep them feeling their best while learning as a school nurse. Others may decide they want to help eradicate common childhood diseases by working as a child disease medical researcher. Many health facilities offer the opportunity to work with this population as part of the organization’s larger mission, but those who want to be surrounded by others doing the same often feel drawn to positions available at children’s hospitals and clinics.
When I was a nursing student, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Spino during my pediatric rotations. I knew immediately upon meeting him that I wanted to model his energy and enthusiasm in my own nursing practice. Dr. Spino always took time to be fully present with his patients, and watching his interactions was truly transformative. I even once witnessed him crawl into an enclosed humidified hospital crib just to comfort a screaming baby.
But my most memorable experience with Dr. Spino hits a little closer to home. It was Thanksgiving Day when my six-year-old son began running a high fever. Panicked, I called Dr. Spino, and without hesitation he told me meet him at his office. He had been on the way to the grocery store to pickup a few Thanksgiving essentials when I called, but he immediately dropped his own errands to be there for my son. When Dr. Spino began examining my son, he handed me a little note with a list of groceries scribbled on it and asked if I wouldn’t mind holding on to it while he completed the exam. He took his time checking my son’s vitals and reassuring him everything was alright as if he didn’t have a houseful of hungry family members waiting for him at home. After he finished my son’s examination and wrote us prescriptions for medication to remedy the flu symptoms, I handed him back his now crumpled and sweat-dampened note and told him to tell his family sorry from me for keeping him so long. Dr. Spino smiled at me and my son before hurrying off to the store with his half-destroyed shopping list.
Testimonial from Dianne Barnard,
“My Son on Thanksgiving”
Just as some people feel drawn to working with humans as they enter the world, others feel a calling toward those who are in the final chapters of their story. Those who want to work with elderly populations can choose from many rewarding positions that allow them to support and care for patients handling common geriatric ailments. Some may want to work in a long-term care facility as geriatric care managers or rehabilitation counselors, while others may decide to provide care to those still managing on their own as a home health aide. Especially for elderly men and women recovering from surgery or injury, occupational therapists can find work helping them recover their mobility and live their best lives. Other positions to consider include geriatric nurse, geriatric physician assistant, geriatric nutritionist, geriatric dental hygienist, or a medical researcher focused on diseases and illnesses common to this population.
The house I grew up next to was always vacant, but one day an elderly couple moved in. I learned that the husband, an 82-year-old man, had just been discharged from a skilled nursing facility less than a month prior and was working to get back on his feet. Only two weeks after moving into the house, the wife passed away very unexpectedly. For the first time in 56 years, our 82-year-old neighbor found himself living alone without his wife and primary caregiver. He was in poor health and living alone was unsafe, and despite his children’s pleas to move into assisted living, he refused.
As a compromise, his family bought him an emergency alert necklace so he could call for help if needed. One night, as he attempted to get out of his bed, he fell and became trapped between his mattress and the bedrail. Luckily, he was able to use his emergency alert necklace to call for help. Within minutes, an emergency response team arrived at his home. The elderly man was embarrassed, distraught, and adamant he did not want to be taken to the hospital. The paramedics helped him get up and assessed his condition before determining he did not need further medical attention. Though the paramedics had done their job and were set to leave, one paramedic whose shift was over chose to hang back. He contacted the man’s family, helped rearrange the furniture in his bedroom so he could maneuver more easily, and even got the man laughing. The paramedic stuck around until the man’s family arrived and gave out his personal number to the man and his family in case he ever needed assistance from a familiar face.
Testimonial from Shanna Myers,
“The Paramedic Who Stayed Behind”
A 2015 study in the Advances in Medical Education and Practice journal stated the U.S. was home to more than 20 million veterans, with that number expected to grow in the coming years. Veterans often face specific medical challenges, with between 18-22 of these brave heroes completing suicide each day. Mental health stands as a huge area of necessary care for this population, with many also facing issues of anxiety, major depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. The National Veterans’ Foundation reported that approximately 19.5% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experienced a traumatic brain injury while in the field. Many positions exist for people who want to support and make a difference in the lives of this community. The Department of Veterans Affairs is the largest employer, but medical and medical support roles can also be found in areas of mental health, rehabilitation, substance abuse, physical therapy, psychology and psychiatry, and healthcare administration.
According to a 2017 report by the Health Affairs Journal, minority populations in America are more at risk for receiving low-value health services than their white counterparts, particularly when it comes to preventative care such as cancer screenings or diabetes detection. Many medical and medical support staff want to see a reduction in these trends – particularly those who have experienced first-hand the discrepancies in care. Some professionals who identify as minorities may decide they want to work with these populations to bring support and treatment to those who are less likely to receive care otherwise. An article from the University of Washington on the need for more minority doctors also points to the simple fact that minority patients may be more inclined to receive medical treatment from physicians and support staff who look like them.
Making a Difference in Communities
Like those who gravitate toward a specific type of patient, some medical professionals choose to focus their work in certain communities. Either they’re a member of the community in which they work, or they’ve made a special connection with its people and want to see it improve and grow. Here are five places where healthcare professionals often focus their careers
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, low-income residents face tough decisions every day about paying for medical care versus other basic needs such as housing, transportation, and food. Even with government programs in place to help ease burdens, the smallest of medical issues can derail their financial stability for long periods of time. Furthermore, many low-income residents can’t afford insurance, placing them at higher risk for skipping preventative check-ups and care.
Medical professionals can play vital roles in low-income neighborhoods. In addition to screenings, immunizations, and check-ups, they can promote health education. Many low-income individuals have not received training on how to properly care for themselves through nutrition, physical exercise, mental health, and avoiding harmful substances. Health professionals can work to transform health in these communities through simple acts of education and care.
In 2019, the National Rural Health Association reported that nearly 700 hospitals in rural areas are currently at risk of closing – in addition to the 70+ that have closed since 2010. Much like low-income communities, people living in rural towns often lack access to quality healthcare and funding to pay for services. A February 2019 report by The Commonwealth Fund shared the story of a rural doctor whose patients nearly all live below the poverty level of $25,100 for a family of four. With an average of only 40 doctors per 100,000 individuals living in rural America, the need for qualified medical professionals is great for these communities. Because rural towns face extreme shortages of medical staff, the American Hospital Association recommends devoting more time to outpatient care to address common issues in these communities: obesity, lack of physical exercise, chronic illnesses, smoking/alcohol dependency, and mental health issues. Medical professionals can look for jobs in small clinics, mobile care organizations, or as travel care providers
According to the Pew Research Center, more than one million Americans are currently serving time in state prisons – in addition to those living in private facilities. With the fastest-growing prison population on the globe, delivering healthcare to inmates is critical. Medical professionals looking to work in prisons can choose from two options: on-site and off-site care. Pew found that a significant portion of prisons’ healthcare budgets went to offsite care: Virginia spent 27% of its budget on care provided through outside facilities. The most necessary services currently include mental health support, substance abuse treatment, suicide prevention, chronic illness management, and preventative care. Anyone looking for information on how to provide meaningful care to these communities can learn more via the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare, the American College of Correctional Physicians, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A few years ago, I visited a family friend in prison. My friend, who was only 28 at the time, mentioned that she was concerned about a lump she had noticed in her right breast. She wasn’t quite sure how to bring it to the attention of the correctional officer or medical department at the prison, so she asked me do some research for her. I reached out to my longtime family physician for guidance, and rather than just giving me some advice to relay back to my friend, the doctor offered to accompany me to the prison.
After gathering information on my friend’s family and health history and conducting a physical exam, she advised my friend to express her worries to one of the medical directors at the prison — the possibility of breast cancer seemed to be a real concern. The doctor went out of her way to speak to the correctional officer and arrange for my friend to have a mammogram and biopsy the following week. When the results came in, they found that she had breast cancer, but she was lucky that they caught it early. My friend has since been released from prison and has received the lumpectomy and chemotherapy she needed to make a make a full recovery.
There was nothing in it for the doctor, but she still took the time out of her busy schedule to visit my friend, provide advice, and see that she had follow-up exams with the prison medical staff. Now in a much better place, my friend is incredibly grateful for the physician who guided her through the uncomfortable and scary position of being diagnosed with cancer.
Testimonial from Alex Belkin,
“Breast Cancer in Prison”
A report by the National LGBTQ Task Force found that more than half of all people identifying as LGBTQIA+ have experienced healthcare discrimination in some form. Some may not be able to find a gender designation that meets their needs on medical intake forms, while others may be denied care by anti-LGBTQ staff. Another study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that nearly one in five transgender and gender nonconforming individuals have been refused care due to identifying in this way. LGBTQIA-friendly medical staff and support professionals are needed to affirm these communities and ensure they receive the care they need. Given the discrimination they face, mental health is a huge area of concern – as is suicide prevention. In addition to general healthcare concerns, LGBTQIA individuals also seek specialized care in areas of hormone therapy, sex reassignment therapy/surgery, and HIV prevention and care.
While much of this guide focuses on health disparities within America and the roles that need to be filled in this country, the larger world is also in great need of qualified professionals to provide critical medical services. This is especially true in developing countries that lack the internal infrastructure needed to offer high-quality care. If you feel drawn to this type of career, Doctors Without Borders offers a number of opportunities to get involved around the globe. Other organizations to research include the International Medical Corps, Mercy Ships, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, Medic Mobile, and Partners in Health.
Making a Difference with Animals
While much of this guide has focused on the impact you can make when caring for their fellow humans, many roles also exist for those who want to make a difference in the lives of animals. According to data from the Insurance Information Institute, approximately 68% of all American households have pets in their homes, accounting for 60.2 million dogs, 47.1 million cats, 12.5 million freshwater fish, and an additional 24 million birds, reptiles, horses, saltwater fish, and other small animals. These numbers do not speak to the millions of feral and unclaimed animals who also need medical support.
In addition to working as a veterinarian, there are several roles for those who want to devote their careers to caring for pets but don’t have the time to pursue a doctoral degree. Veterinarian technologists and technicians support vets by providing care to injured or recovering animals, ensuring hygiene, delivering anesthesia, taking x-rays, performing tests, preparing pets for surgery, administering therapies and medicines, and collecting data from their guardians. Veterinary assistants and laboratory animal caretakers, meanwhile, maintain clean living spaces for pets in their care, sterilize surgical tools, monitor animals after surgery, administer medications, and feed and bathe animals.
Both of these positions also support the mental health of the pets’ guardians. Sometimes difficult decisions about the care and wellbeing of pets must be made, and these individuals can provide compassion and information to help them along the way.
Do any of the examples above call to you? Learn what it takes to become a medical and healthcare professional.
Making a Difference Behind the Scenes
Individuals working in patient-facing roles may receive the most visibility, but that doesn’t mean they are the only ones making the lives of their patients better. Medical professionals can make a difference behind the scenes in many ways; we’ve highlighted just a few examples here.
Careers in the world of medical billing and coding may initially seem far away from the action, but these professionals play critical roles in ensuring patients don’t feel completely overwhelmed by the intricacies of insurance reimbursement. Using their specialized knowledge, medical records and health information technicians manage patient data, assign clinical codes, and work directly with insurance agencies to ensure they get paid and patients can move on with their lives. They also help make sure their co-workers get paid by ensuring insurance companies provide reimbursements in a timely manner.
In order for doctors to effectively treat patients facing illness, disease, and injury, they must be able to diagnose the issues and create a plan of action. To do this, they must have research backing up their assessments and informing how to best care for their patients. Enter medical scientists. These researchers spend their days in labs, conducting research and seeking answers to complex medical issues. Advancements in treatments for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and myriad other ailments are due to these dedicated individuals who run studies, analyze samples, develop therapies, and write in-depth papers on their findings. Some individuals spend their entire careers focused on a single, nuanced health issue, making it imperative for those considering this career to enjoy sustained work on detail-oriented assignments.
While much attention is placed on the work that medical professionals do to treat and support patients, it’s important to remember that none of these services could take place without the administrative and leadership skills of medical and health services managers. Whether working to oversee an individual long-term care facility or managing an entire network of hospitals, these professionals oversee the business side to ensure everything runs smoothly for patients and staff. Some of the common tasks include developing and overseeing budgets, creating work schedules, recruiting staff, working with outside vendors to bring in training programs, ensuring compliance with all local, state, federal, and industry guidelines and regulations, and ensuring smooth communication amongst all stakeholders.
Doctors often receive much credit for the work they do in the operating room, but they couldn’t do their jobs nearly as well without the help of surgical technologists. Also known as operating room technicians, these trained members of the medical support staff spend their days preparing operating rooms, ensuring all equipment is properly sterilized, replenishing necessary supplies, prepping patients for surgery, handing surgeons instruments during operations, overseeing other surgical support staff, and cleaning operating rooms thoroughly to ensure the environment is sterile for the next surgery.
Similar to medical researchers and scientists, individuals working in laboratories help facilitate the work of doctors, nurses, and others on the front lines of patient care. If they do not want to specialize in research, many individuals work as lab technicians. After receiving samples from a hospital or other healthcare facility, these professionals analyze the samples, check for abnormalities, and report their findings back to the presiding doctor. They must know how to use advanced lab equipment and instruments to run the tests while also ensuring samples are not compromised along the way. They must also keep detailed records and logs about their data so it can be used in the patient’s medical record. Lab technicians often confer with doctors about their findings, or run additional tests to help clarify a course of treatment.
Working under the supervision of licensed pharmacists, pharmacy technicians provide behind-the-scenes assistance to ensure prescriptions get filled in an accurate and timely manner. They manage existing inventory, report back on medication shortages, process payments from customers, handling incoming calls and answer any administrative questions, measure out proper amounts of drugs to fill prescriptions, speak with doctors or customers to ensure they have all needed information (e.g. allergies, etc.), and ensure all prescriptions receive the proper labeling and packaging before a customer picks them up.
Many administrative positions exist in physicians’ offices, hospitals, rehabilitation clinics, and long-term care facilities. These individuals help ensure the facilities run smoothly and that medical staff receive the support they need to adequately care for patients. Medical assistants update patient medical records with new information, schedule appointments, assist with examinations, collect patient medical histories and demographic information, and convey information and/or directions from medical staff to patients. Depending on state regulations, some may also perform basic clinical support functions as well.