Health Informatics & Sciences

What Is Allied Health? A Guide to Health Professionals Who Are Neither Doctors Nor Nurses

What Is Allied Health? A Guide to Health Professionals Who Are Neither Doctors Nor Nurses
As many as 60 percent of US healthcare workers diagnose, evaluate, and treat injuries and diseases, even though they aren't doctors or nurses. These practitioners fall under the umbrella term 'allied health.' Image from Unsplash
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Seri Roth May 11, 2021

There's a vast universe of healthcare providers beyond the ranks of doctors, nurses, and dentists. Essential practitioners from billing specialists to occupational therapists constitute the ranks of allied healthcare.

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For most people, the term ‘medical care’ evokes mental images of doctors, nurses, and dentists. These healthcare professionals certainly provide essential primary care services, but they hardly constitute the entirety of the healthcare field. For example, they don’t include audiologists, dental hygienists, diagnostic sonographers, kinesiotherapists, marriage counselors, physician assistants, radiologic assistants, respiratory therapists, or speech pathologists.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As many as 60 percent of US healthcare workers diagnose, evaluate, and treat injuries and diseases, even though they aren’t doctors or nurses. These practitioners fall under the umbrella term ‘allied health.’

So, what is allied health? We address that question in this article by discussing:

  • What is allied health?
  • Who are allied health professionals?
  • What are the educational requirements for allied health professions?
  • Can I study to become an allied health professional online?

What is allied health?

Allied health encompasses fields of medicine that involve the application of scientific principles and evidence-based practice to the treatment of patients suffering various conditions and ailments. Allied health professionals are highly trained, usually hold licenses or certifications, and frequently focus on wellness and preventative medicine in addition to addressing crises. What they are not, however, are doctors, nurses, or dentists.

The term allied health originated in the 1960s, partly as the result of federal action. In 1966, the federal government enacted legislation to provide education funding in medicine, pharmacy, podiatry, optometry, osteopathy, and veterinary medicine. It then passed a separate law, entitled the Allied Health Professions Training Act of 1966, to ensure adequate funding for the education of health providers not covered by the first law. These practitioners were deemed “allied” to the initial grouping of medical professionals; hence, “allied health.”

At roughly the same time, the Association of Schools Advancing Health Professions emerged. ASAHP promotes education, inter-professional collaboration, best practices, and innovation in allied health practice.

According to ASAHP, allied health professionals engage in the “diagnostic evaluation and treatment of acute and chronic diseases and disorders; provision of dietary and nutrition services; rehabilitation services; and the management and operation of health systems.” Allied health serves everyone from individuals and families to communities and institutions.

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Who are allied health professionals?

The Federal Code defines allied health professionals as those patient-care professionals who have not received any of the following degrees:

  • Doctor of Chiropractic or an equivalent degree
  • Doctor of Dentistry or an equivalent degree
  • Doctor of Medicine
  • Doctor of Osteopathy
  • Doctor of Optometry or an equivalent degree
  • Doctor of Pharmacy or an equivalent degree
  • Doctor of Podiatric Medicine or an equivalent degree
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine or an equivalent degree
  • doctoral degree in clinical psychology or an equivalent degree
  • graduate degree in health administration or an equivalent degree
  • graduate degree in public health or an equivalent degree,
  • degree in social work or an equivalent degree
  • degree in counseling or an equivalent degree
  • bachelor of science in pharmacy or an equivalent degree

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) defines allied health professionals as someone who:

  • has graduated and received an allied health professions degree or certificate from an institution of higher education
  • is employed with a Federal, State, local, or tribal public health agency, or in a setting or in a setting where patients might require health services, including acute care facilities, ambulatory care facilities, personal residences, and other settings located in health professional shortage areas, medically underserved areas, or medically underserved populations, as recognized by the Secretary of Health and Human Services

ASAHP includes the following in its list of allied health professions:

  • Anesthesiologist assistant
  • Athletic trainer
  • Audiologist
  • Behavioral disorder counselor
  • Cardiovascular technologists
  • Cytotechnology
  • Dental hygienist
  • Diagnostic medical sonographer
  • Dietician
  • Emergency medical technician
  • Genetic assistant
  • Healthcare administrator
  • Health information technologist
  • Home health aide
  • Lactation consultant
  • Marriage and family therapist
  • Medical dosimetrist
  • Medical illustrator
  • Mental health counselor
  • Music therapist
  • Medical transcriptionist
  • Occupational therapist
  • Orthotic and prosthetic technician
  • Physical therapist
  • Radiologic technician
  • Speech pathologist
  • Vocational rehabilitation counselor

What are the educational requirements for allied health professions?

Careers in allied health offer entry points at multiple academic plateaus. You can complete a two-year associate’s degree training program and become a:

  • Dialysis technician
  • EKG technician
  • Medical assistant
  • Medical billing and revenue specialist
  • Medical coder
  • Nurse aide
  • Phlebotomist

Undergraduate institutions offer multiple bachelor’s degrees in allied health sciences, including:

  • Allied health sciences
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Biology
  • Chiropractics
  • Dental hygiene
  • Diagnostic genetic sciences
  • Dietetics
  • Health sciences
  • Medical laboratory technology
  • Mental health counseling
  • Microbiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Psychology
  • Sports performance

Many allied healthcare careers, including—unsurprisingly—those that pay highest require a graduate degree and, often, licensure or certification from the state and/or a professional governing board. You must earn a doctor of physical therapy degree from a Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education-accredited program to become a physical therapist, for example. You need a master’s in occupational therapy to become an occupational therapist (although the profession’s governing board is considering requiring a doctorate in the future).

Can I study to become an allied health professional online?

Allied health graduate programs have started appearing online with increasing frequency in recent years. The Master in Healthcare Administration was among the earliest program types to commit to online learning. Many schools have more recently introduced online physician assistant programs.

Of course, many healthcare degree programs include required internships, field placements, or rotational work, but schools are developing ways to manage this challenge. Some offer hybrid programs in which most content is delivered online but also require students to participate in some in-person on-campus learning. Others have expanded their career offices to assist in finding remote placements for distance learners.

If you’re a college freshman or a community college student thinking about a career in allied health, it’s hard to go wrong with a health sciences major. You’ll study across the spectrum of healthcare services, learning what piques your interest. Let your curiosity drive you and you will find your way to the graduate program and career that suits your interests and skills.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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