Allied health careers: Not just doctors and nurses
Posted September 28, 2012, by Vivien Luu
When we think of careers in health, many of us immediately think of doctors and nurses. After all, they’re the ones who keep us alive if we’re ever rushed to the hospital, right?
While this is indeed the case, have you ever considered what happens after the initial emergency? Who helps get you back on your feet after a nasty accident or illness? The answer is allied health workers.
Allied health professionals make up approximately 20 per cent of Australia’s health workforce, and are comprised of a variety of occupations. These range from dietitians and psychologists to chiropractors and orthoptists.
What is allied health?
Allied health practitioners aim to restore, maintain and optimise a patient’s physical, sensory, cognitive and psychological function. Now this might sound like a lot of technical jargon so let’s take a look at an example.
After emerging from a coma, a stroke patient may need to relearn how to walk, eat and speak again. So a team of allied health professionals is called in. The nutritionist assesses the patient’s dietary needs and prescribes additional supplements, the physiotherapist works with the patient to improve physical function and movement, while the speech pathologist helps the patient with their swallowing and language skills. As you can see, it takes a lot more than just doctors and nurses when it comes to health care, and allied health professionals each help with a specific aspect of a patient’s health and wellbeing.
How do you become an allied health professional?
Firstly, you’ll need to be qualified and have a university degree or other qualification under your belt. Part of your degree will also involve doing placements to gain practical experience.
In terms of personality, you’ll most likely be a person who enjoys helping and supporting others and you’ll need strong interpersonal skills and an ability to relate to others. This is important as allied health professionals spend a lot of their time one-on-one with their clients. Having an aptitude for science will also be useful in this career path.
What career opportunities are there? While there are a variety of allied health careers to choose from, here’s a closer look at some specialties.
As an occupational therapist or ‘OT’, your main focus is to improve a client’s everyday functional abilities to ensure they live rich and fulfilling lives. This means helping clients with activities they want to do but may struggle with due to a disability, illness or injury. These can include activities of everyday life like self-care (bathing, dressing, grooming, toileting, feeding); household chores (cooking, cleaning, shopping); community involvement, and work or study.
You will work closely with clients to assess their capabilities and design a program that is tailored to their needs. On top of that, OTs are also responsible for providing assistive equipment to clients (such as wheelchairs), conducting home assessments and providing education to clients and their loved ones. It’s an occupation that demands patience and flexibility but can be extremely rewarding.
If you want to start off in occupational therapy as an assistant, you can begin your training with a Certificate IV in Allied Health Assistance (Occupational Therapy), which you can complete online.
There is a common misconception that physiotherapy is mostly about sports. And while some physios do work with elite athletes and professional teams, physiotherapy actually extends to a much wider range of clients. This can range from premature babies and children with cerebral palsy to patients recovering from major surgery or injuries.
‘It can be a really rewarding career because you have the potential to impact on a patient’s quality of life’, says physiotherapist Katherine Wong. ‘For example I work in rehabilitation and it’s really exciting to teach somebody to walk again after they’ve had a stroke’.
Physiotherapists use a range of treatments to reduce a patient’s physical pain and restore function to their limbs. Techniques may include mobilisation and manipulation of joints, massage and hydrotherapy.
If you have an ability to inspire confidence and motivate others, and are genuinely interested in health and wellbeing, then consider physiotherapy as a career. You can also train to become a physiotherapy assistant by completing a Certificate IV in Allied Health Assistance (Physiotherapy).
Despite what many people think, speech pathologists treat a whole range of individuals, not just those with stutters or speech impediments. Clients can include people of all ages who have difficulty with communication and/or swallowing. This might vary from babies struggling with breastfeeding to people who need to relearn how to speak after suffering a head injury or stroke.
As a speech pathologist, your day-to-day tasks will vary greatly depending on the organisation you are employed at and the type of clients you treat. For instance, speech pathologists who work in hospitals will work with patients in a rehabilitative capacity – assessing a patient’s swallowing function to ensure eating is safe post-surgery or perhaps devising communication strategies for those undergoing cancer treatment. Meanwhile, speech pathologists who specialise in providing disability services may treat young children with autism or cerebral palsy to increase their communication skills and confidence.
Regardless of where you end up as a ‘speech path’, you’ll need superior listening and interpersonal skills and an ability to tactfully approach a patient’s problems. An interest in language and communication is useful too.
To train to become a speech pathology assistant, you can study a Certificate IV in Allied Health Assistance (Speech Pathology).
Contrary to what many people believe, exercise physiologists (EPs) are not personal trainers. Instead, they’re university-qualified experts in exercise therapy and rehabilitation.
‘What most people don’t realise is that exercise is a form of medicine’, says exercise physiologist student Robyn Yin. ‘Exercise physiologists basically prescribe exercise’.
EPs develop individualised exercise programs that are designed to prevent or manage chronic disease, injury or disability. Clients can include those with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, arthritis and even depression. But it’s not just about tailoring exercises to a client’s health condition. EPs also use counselling and motivational strategies to ensure clients commit to regular exercise on a long-term basis.
As an EP you can work in a variety of different workplaces, ranging from hospitals and aged care centres to academies of sport and health promotion and fitness agencies. To become an exercise physiologist, you can study your Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science (Clinical Exercise Physiology) by distance education.
If you think dietitians just help celebrities lose weight, then think again. Dietitians are, in fact, health professionals who apply the science of nutrition to improve the health of individuals and the community at large. This involves educating clients on the impact of diet, planning appropriate diets and meals for clients with medical conditions such as diabetes, and advising other healthcare professionals on the role of diet in health care and recovery management.
In terms of where you can work, the opportunities are endless. You could work in a major hospital planning meals for the seriously ill, or you could work with children at schools, teaching them about nutrition and food. Where you take your career as a dietitian is really up to you.
Nutritionists also work in the area of nutrition and can work in gyms, doctors’ clinics, complementary medicine clinics, sporting clubs, health food shops and hospitality, or as a nutritional counsellor or consultant. The educational requirements to become a nutritionist are less rigorous than for dietitians, as dietitians require a bachelor degree or more.
If you have a deep appreciation for food and are genuinely interested in health and wellbeing, a career as a dietitian or nutritionist could be for you. We offer a range of nutrition courses that can be studied online.
Very few people understand what orthoptists do, and chances are if you do, you’ve probably been treated by one. Orthoptists are essentially eye experts who diagnose eye movement disorders and vision problems such as glaucoma and amblyopia. Unlike optometrists, orthoptists do not prescribe glasses. Instead they work closely with ophthalmologists (eye doctors), assessing and testing the vision of an ophthalmologist’s patients.
They also screen the vision of school children to detect any vision disorders, can test for age-related eye conditions such as cataracts, and may help rehabilitate patients after a stroke or head injury. Orthoptists can recommend surgery if a patient’s condition requires it (but do not perform the surgery themselves), or will suggest exercises or therapy where appropriate.
Orthoptist, Janine Sing, says it’s a challenging career but one that can make a real difference in people’s lives. ‘Every day something is different. You go into work not knowing what to expect’, she says. ‘Being an orthoptist provides me with great opportunities to get out there in the health industry and make a difference’.
Orthoptists can work in private practice, hospitals and low vision clinics, or devote their time to research. The field is so small that there is always a demand for orthoptists. ‘It is a very niche profession and there aren't many of us out there’, says Sing. ‘Job-wise there are plenty of opportunities and so much room to grow’.
Allied health assistant
If you want to get into allied health without having to complete a university degree, you can also train to become a general allied health assistant, or specialise in an area such as podiatry, by studying a Certificate III in Allied Health Assistance or Certificate IV in Allied Health Assistance (Podiatry).
See our full range of online health courses.
Viv is a writer who enjoys researching and writing about creativity, how the human mind works, and neuro processes. She values creativity above all else and admires people who pursue their career dreams, no matter the sacrifice. In her spare time, she binges on HBO shows and epic fantasy novels.