Alternatives to Becoming a Doctor

Physicians don't have the only good jobs in health care.
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If you want a career in health care, you have a lot of options. Many people consider becoming a physician the top-of-the-line model, but it’s expensive and can take 12 years or even more before you can begin to practice. Many medical students start out with student debt of $162,000 to $205,674, according to the American Medical Association. Of course, you could choose law or deep sea fishing or TV announcing, but if your heart is set on something in health care, consider some other options.

Nurse Practitioner or Physician Assistant

    Family practice doctors are generalists who provide primary care to patients of all ages. Instead, you could choose to become a physician assistant or a nurse practitioner. You’ll spend less time in school -- about six years for a PA and six to eight for an NP. Although you will need to work with a supervising physician in most states, your practice will include many of the usual physicians’ tasks, such as diagnosing illness, treating injuries, ordering diagnostic tests and prescribing medication. Average annual salaries for PAs in 2011 were $89,470, which compares to family practice doctors’ $177,330, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners reports that NPs who specialized in family practice earned $87,630 in 2011.


    Anesthesiologists have good earnings -- an average annual salary of $234,950 in 2011, according to the BLS. But you could become a certified registered nurse anesthesiologist and perform very similar work. CRNAs belong to the same group of advanced practice nurses as nurse practitioners and can perform similar functions; they also require a master's degree. CRNAs are normally responsible for the administration of anesthesia, post-operative recovery and pain management. It's one of the highest-earning nursing professions -- CRNAs earned close to $169,000 in 2011, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.

Obstetrics and Gynecology

    Obstetrics and gynecology is the medical specialty that focuses on managing female health, pregnancy, childbirth and reproductive issues. OB-GYNs, as these physicians are known, earned $218,610 in 2011, according to the BLS. As a certified nurse midwife, or CNM, you can provide almost all of the same services -- cesarean sections are one notable exception. Many CNMs work in birthing centers or in their own or their client’s homes rather than in hospitals, as OB-GYNs do. The CNM is taught to see birth as a normal process instead of a medical condition, so her approach is often very different from that of an OB-GYN. CNMs earned an average annual salary of $114,152 in 2010, according to the American College of Nurse-Midwives.


    Although you’ll still have to spend years in the educational process, you could earn your Pharm. D, or doctor of pharmacy, instead of becoming a medical doctor. Pharmacists usually spend about 10 years going through a bachelor’s degree to a clinical internship. One advantage of a job as a pharmacist is the hours -- unless you choose to do so, you probably won’t put in the long hours that a physician does. You’ll still have plenty of patient contact, as one of a pharmacist’s primary responsibilities is patient education. The average annual salary for pharmacists in 2011 was $112,160, according to the BLS.

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