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Helping and healing people. Your job as a public service. Making a difference. This is the driving force behind many medical professionals and inspires a healthcare career. When a child announces this rationale, it is usually in reference to being a doctor when they grow up. However, not everyone who has this goal has the ability or want to complete the required 8+ years of schooling needed to become a doctor.

Luckily, if you’ve ever been to a hospital, medical office, or even an alternative medicine clinic, you understand that there are many, many more people working in healthcare than just doctors. There are  also many medical professions that require much less schooling. This article will detail alternative medical paths that allow you to fulfill your desire to help people, but require only two to four years of schooling. So, if you’re planning  to get a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, but aren’t willing or able to commit to more, these occupations fall right in that sweet spot and allow you to work directly with people.

Occupations that require a two year associate’s degree:

Occupational therapy assistant (OTA)

Education: Associate of Applied Science Degree in Occupational Science

Job growth outlook*: 28 percent

Average salary: $56,690

What occupational therapy assistants do: OTAs work under the direction of the occupational therapist in your clinic to help patients recover from an injury or illness to regain independence in daily life.

Why one OTA became an OTA: “I have someone very near and dear to me who has special needs. He had occupational therapy and physical therapy from the time he was one to 18 years old. I would take him to appointments sometimes and I really enjoyed what the OT’s were doing for him and how they helped him re-learn how to do some of his self care and be more independent. So, I started looking into it, found a school, and went for it!” – Beth Snyder, OTA at St. Anthony Central Hospital.

Dental hygienist

Education: Associate of Applied Science Degree in Dental Hygiene

Job growth outlook: 20 percent

Average salary: $74,070

What dental hygienists do: Dental hygienists are the people who clean teeth, take dental x-rays, and examine teeth for oral health before consulting the dentist of the clinic.

Dental hygienists evaluate oral health holistically: Much of a dental hygienists job is preventative as they look for early signs of problems. This is expanding to focus on pre-existing conditions like diabetes and pregnancy complications, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information and the Hindawi Journal of Pregnancy.  

Respiratory therapist

Education: Associate of Science Degree in Respiratory Therapy or Respiratory Care

Job growth outlook: 23 percent

Average salary: $59,710

What respiratory therapists do: Respiratory therapists help patients who have trouble breathing. This often includes premature infants with underdeveloped lungs, patients with respiratory ailments like asthma, emphysema, and cystic fibrosis. Respiratory therapists also respond to breathing emergencies such as patients who have undergone heart attacks, drowning, or shock.

The gratifying task of a respiratory therapist: It is common for a respiratory therapist to help a newborn baby draw its first breath.

Physical therapy assistants or aide

Education: Associate of Applied Science Degree in Physical Therapist Assisting

Job growth outlook: 30 percent

Average salary: $46,920

What physical therapy assistants/aides do: Work with patients to regain movement after an injury, for example, a broken bone. PT assistants also help patients make treatment plans and manage pain.  

A physical therapy aide’s favorite part of what she does: “Working one-on-one with people. I’m a fitness fanatic, so I enjoy that a lot,” said Tracy Morrison, Physical Therapy Aide at Denver Physical Therapy. She explained that in order to be successful in physical therapy, “you definitely want to be able to work well with people one-on-one versus a group setting. It’s about being a people person because you want to create bonds with patients.”

Medical assistant

Education: Associate of Applied Science Degree in Medical Assisting  

Job growth outlook: 29 percent

Average salary: $32,480

What medical assistants do: Medical assistants perform administrative tasks, such as scheduling and record keeping, as well as clinical tasks including checking vitals, talking with patients about their needs with corresponding recording, explaining treatments to patients, and drawing blood.

Medical assistants run the show: A medical assistant coordinates much of what a patient experiences in a medical office or clinic. The medical assistant transfers the patient everywhere from the time they are called from the waiting room to the time they walk out the door. Additionally, the assistant communicates and coordinates with the rest of the staff throughout the patient’s visit.

Radiologic technologist

Education: Associate of Applied Science Degree in Radiologic Technology

Job growth outlook: 13 percent

Average salary: $60,070

What radiologic technologists do: Radiologic technologists administer x-rays and other imaging examinations to patients. They may also perform radiation therapy on patients. Some radiologic technologists specialize in a certain part of the body and corresponding diagnostic imaging such as bones or breasts (as in mammography).

Radiologic techs use old technology, but are able to make new discoveries: As x-rays have been used in early disease detection as well as to revolutionize how we treat certain diseases like tuberculosis and cancer, radiologic technologists are at the cutting edge of potential discovery, despite the fact that x-rays are an old technology and have been used since 1895.

What about radiation exposure?: Modern shields and technology prevent dangerous levels of radiation from getting to a radiologic technologist. While a radiologic technologist can be exposed to more radiation than the average person, the dose is low enough for studies to conclude that there is no evidence that exposure to radiation in the workplace under proper controls causes more cancer, according to a study by the University of Minnesota.

Nursing assistant

Education: Associate of Applied Science Degree in Nursing

Job growth outlook: 11 percent

Average salary: $27,510

What nursing assistants do: Nursing assistants perform basic tasks and patient care to patients in hospitals or long term care facilities. These tasks usually include cleaning, feeding, and bathing patients.

What people don’t know about nursing assistants: Rebecca Bowker, Certified Nursing Assistant at BrightStar Care, explained that she performs most of the tasks a nurse would. “I assisted clients with dressing and bathing…sometimes actually feeding individuals. The only thing I really did not do was administer medications.”

Surgical technologist

Education: Associate of Science Degree in Surgical Technology

Job growth outlook: 12 percent

Average salary: $46,310

What surgical technologists do: Surgical technologists aid in surgeries and operations by preparing the operating room, arranging equipment, ensuring equipment sterilization, and assisting doctors throughout the process.

Surgical techs get to work with cutting-edge technology: Surgical technologists get to see, utilize, and learn about the latest technologies which currently include fiber optics, laser technology, and other robotic surgical procedure tools.

Cardiovascular technologist

Education: Associate of Science Degree in Cardiovascular Technology

Job growth outlook: 17 percent

Average salary: $57,250

What respiratory therapists do: Test patient’s cardiovascular systems through imaging examinations to aid in diagnostics.

Cardiovascular techs save lives: In the emergency room, a patient may have a clogged artery that will be fatal if not treated in time. A cardiovascular technologist may locate this artery and help unclog it.

Occupations that require a four-year bachelor’s degree:


Education: Bachelor of Arts in Nutrition

Job growth outlook: 15 percent

Average salary: $59,410

What nutritionists do: Specializing in food, nutritionists advise patients on how to lead a healthy lifestyle, target specific food-related goals, and plan diets with various health concerns in mind. For example, if a patient is diabetic, they may work with a nutritionist to manage the disease.

Why nutritionists have an important job: “People talk so much about what they’re eating and what they’re cutting out, what they’re not eating, what diet they’re on, what other people are doing. It’s interesting to learn the science behind it so you can sort through what is true and what’s not true,” said Emma Meyer, who is studying nutrition at Point Loma Nazarene University.


Education: Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Job growth outlook: 15 percent

Average salary: $70,000

What nurses do: Nurses coordinate communication between parents and doctors, administer medication and other treatments, and provide a wide array of care for patients including recording patient symptoms and conditions, providing emotional support, and advising patients on post-release care.

Why nursing is a rewarding career: We asked a nurse what the most amazing thing she’d ever seen on the job was. Kat Wolanska said, “as a rehab nurse I have the honor to help and support patients getting better after acute illness or accidents. I remember one patient came to my unit after he had his hands and feet amputated due to frostbite. He had a long way to recovery. After many weeks of intensive rehab he was discharged. About a year later I noticed a picture and a note on the board in the staff break room. When I looked at the picture I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was a man with a well build body standing tall on prosthetic legs with smile on his face. I barely could recognized my patient. It was very rewarding seeing a patient overcome his biggest challenge and I was happy to be part of his success.”

Studying for the NCLEX? See also: Peterson’s Practice Tests for the NCLEX.

Healthcare professionals have a very important job and healthcare as a whole is comprised of a huge team of people, all with different positions and skill sets. If helping people hand-on is what you want to do, there are plenty of avenues that don’t require extensive schooling. Find what interests you and get started on your medical professional journey.

Information overload? Here’s a quick recap for your reference:

*Job outlook refers to the projected percent change in employment from 2016 to 2026. The average growth rate for all occupations is 7 percent as defined and provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.