Jobs in medicine and healthcare are rewarding but challenging. As a doctor, nurse or vet, you will work directly with people (or animals) with mental and physical illnesses. You give lifesaving healthcare and advice. And it's not just about being a doctor or nurse, there are a huge range of healthcare roles out there, for people with different strengths and interests. What unites them is a drive to make a difference in people's lives.
Behind the scenes, there are also lots of scientists researching diseases and the human body to develop new drugs, materials and technologies to help medical professionals give us the best treatment possible.
In the UK, if you work in medicine and healthcare, you can either work for the National Health Service (NHS) – our publicly owned healthcare provider – or for a private organisation, which charge patients directly for treatment or do commercial research.
The NHS is the biggest employer in the UK and the fifth biggest in the world! There are a lot of career paths to choose from and chances to specialise. Here is an overview of the main fields.
Health services are vast and are supported by managers, admin, finance, HR, and maintenance staff like technicians and porters.
Allied health professionals is an umbrella term for healthcare specialists who work directly with patients, treating them, relieving pain and helping them to stay independent. The allied health professions comprise: art therapists, diagnostic radiographers, dieticians, drama therapists, music therapists, occupational therapists, operating department practitioners, orthoptists, orthotists, osteopaths, paramedics, physiotherapists, podiatrists, prosthetists, speech and language therapists and therapeutic radiographers.
Below, we've included details on a few of the more popular roles.
Orthoptists specialise in diagnosing and managing eye conditions, in a wide age range of patients, that largely affect eye movements, visual development or the way the eyes work together. Orthoptics is an exciting and varied career. It offers you the chance to make a difference, a high degree of flexibility and excellent employment prospects. You’ll work with patients every day to help improve their care and their lives. Orthoptists investigate, diagnose and treat defects of binocular vision and abnormalities of eye movement.
As a podiatrist, you will work with people’s feet and legs. You'll diagnose and treat abnormalities and offer professional advice on care of feet and legs to prevent foot problems. In the NHS, you'll see many patients at high risk of amputation, such as those suffering from arthritis or diabetes.
You’ll see a huge variety of patients and help them with many different issues as podiatrist. Some examples of things you might work on include:
Occupational therapists work with people to help them improve their physical and mental health, whether they have a long-term issue or are recovering after an accident.
Prosthetists and orthotists
Prosthetists provide an artificial replacement for patients who are missing a limb. Orthotists provide a range of aids to correct problems or deformities in people’s nerves, muscles or bones. As a prosthetist your aim is to design and create prostheses which match as closely as possible the missing limb. As an orthotist, you'll provide splints, braces and special footwear (orthotics).
An important part of the work is assessing the patient and understanding what they want and need their prosthesis to help them achieve. For example, some prostheses are designed for particular sports. Once the prosthesis is made, you'll fit it. You'll may need to make adjustments to ensure the patient’s comfort and best possible performance. You'll spend time helping patients get used to using the new prosthetic.
Therapeutic radiographers use doses of X-rays and other ionising radiation to treat medical conditions - mainly cancer and tumours. You will work to high levels of accuracy to help ensure the patient's tumour or cancer receives exactly the right dose of radiation, at the same time as ensuring the surrounding normal tissues receive the lowest possible dose.
Paramedics treat people at the scene of an emergency and make sure they get to hospital fast. They are trained to provide life support, give medicine and injections, dress wounds and perform some surgical procedures like inserting breathing tubes.
Physiotherapists specialise in movement (and often work with sports people). Helen tells us what the job is actually like in this interview.
Dentists care for people’s teeth and gums. They can specialise as dental surgeons (you’ll need a medical degree too to do this) or as orthodontists who correct problems with the growth of our teeth, most commonly with braces.
Dentists are supported by dental nurses and dental hygienists who focus on keeping your teeth healthy.
Doctors are qualified to diagnose health problems, prescribe medication and treat patients. Many doctors work in hospitals and specialise in a particular area, from emergency medicine to tropical diseases.
Other doctors work as general practitioners (GPs) and deal with a range of patients, providing early diagnosis and referring more serious problems to hospitals. Consultants are senior specialist doctors who deal with complex cases and are leading experts in their field. It's a tough but rewarding job. Here's how to become a doctor, and real-life insights and advice from doctor Felicity.
Healthcare assistants and carers support people with mental and physical impairments and work with them in specialist facilities or in their homes. Carers help people with all aspects of their lives, from getting dressed to cooking and providing emotional support.
Medical scientists help us understand the human body and are the brains behind new health technologies and medicines.
Midwives specialise in pregnancy and birth. They care for and advise women throughout their pregnancy and help to deliver babies safely.
Nurses provide care and advice to patients in hospitals and in the community. They monitor symptoms, consult with doctors, provide treatments and perform procedures.
Nurses specialise in lots of areas including paediatrics (working with children), psychiatric (working with people with mental health disorders), research, surgery, or as health visitors, visiting and assessing patients and vulnerable people in the community.
Nutritionists are on a mission to get us eating more healthily. They give advice on healthy diets and raise awareness about our food choices. They also conduct research into the way we eat and help to develop new food products.
Optometrists examine people’s vision and eye health. They can prescribe glasses and treat common eye problems, but are also on the lookout for more serious health issues.
Psychiatrists are doctors that specialise in treating people with mental health disorders like schizophrenia, depression or addictions. They prescribe medication, but also recommend therapies, like analysis and counselling to help patients.
Psychologists work with psychiatrists to analyse patients and to develop, deliver and teach different therapies.
Learn how to become a psychiatrist.
Surgeons are qualified to perform operations i.e. procedures that involve cutting into the body, to diagnose and treat problems. Surgeons usually specialise in a particular part of the body and it can take around 15 years for them to train after school.
Vets are trained to diagnose and treat animals. They have to train for as long as doctors and can specialise in particular species. Vets are supported by veterinary nurses.
If you enjoy caring for people and are curious about how people work and behave, you'll find plenty of rewarding careers in medicine and healthcare.
If you work directly with patients, you will need to be considerate and tolerant, as you will deal with people facing serious issues each day. You will also need to be able to communicate with people in a clear, calm and compassionate way.
Providing diagnosis and treatment are major responsibilities, so you will need to be cool under pressure and be able to cope with difficult and sometimes traumatic situations.
If you work in a hospital, you must be ready to work long shifts as well as nights and weekends, especially at the start of your career.
To train for some jobs, like as a doctor or vet, you must also be prepared to study for a long time to qualify and to keep on studying throughout your career.
For more specific information on the skills and personal qualities required for healthcare roles, click on the role you're interested in in the drop-down above.
For all medical careers, you should aim for between a 9 and a 4 in English and maths and choose science subjects at GCSE, particularly biology and chemistry.
After this, whatever you choose to do, you will most likely need to complete more study and practical training to get qualified.
Here’s how it breaks down:
A postgraduate qualification is required among many healthcare jobs, including doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, vets, dentists and surgeons.
To qualify for these jobs you should take science subjects at A-level, including chemistry and biology, and then a related medical degree at university, which will take five years and can only be taken at certain institutions.
After that, you will need to complete two or three years of practical training in hospitals, vet practices, dental surgeries and so on. For surgeons, it takes another 10 years of training after medical school to qualify.
To be a nurse, medical scientist, pharmacist, optometrist, nutritionist, midwife or occupational therapist, you will need to complete a degree and then train in your role. (You can now do a nursing degree apprenticeship, where you'll get paid to complete the degree while training in the role.)
Again, you should take science A-levels, including biology and chemistry, and then either an approved vocational degree in the area you want to work in (e.g. nursing) or a further postgraduate qualification.
Not all medical jobs require a degree. You can become a paramedic, dental hygienist or veterinary nurse through an apprenticeship.
Depending on the apprenticeship level, you may be able to apply straight from school or you may need to complete A-levels. You can begin an intermediate (level 2) or advanced (level 3) scheme with grade 4+ GCSEs in English and maths, while a higher (level 4+) or degree (level 6+) apprenticeship will require a level 3 qualification such as A-levels or equivalent.
Volunteer or take a first aid training course with St John's Ambulance to get an introduction to basic treatment and show your commitment.
You could also apply to work as a life guard at your local swimming pool, where you'll learn safety, rescue and first aid skills.
There are also work experience opportunities in the NHS.
To keep standards high, it’s a requirement for most people working in medicine and healthcare to have carefully regulated qualifications and to keep on training throughout their careers.
If you train as a doctor, nurse or any kind or as a treatment specialist, you will receive a qualification that meet the standards set by the organisation that regulates what you do.
For example, doctors are registered to the General Medical Council and dentists are registered through the General Dental Council.
Most people continue to study and gain new qualifications as they work.
Pharmacy assistants, technicians and carers can study towards NVQs, BTECs or diplomas in their field.
The NHS was one of the world's first universal healthcare systems. It has been described as Britain's "national religion"! It employs over 672,000 clinical staff (2023).
The earliest known doctor is Hesy-Ra, who worked for the ancient Egyptian King Djoser in the 27th century BCE.
The only part of the body that has no blood supply is the cornea in the eye. It takes in oxygen directly from the air.
Your heart beats 100,000 times a day.