Becoming a General Health Practitioner: Job Description & Salary

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A general health practitioner's mean annual salary is $186,000, but is it worth the lengthy training requirements? Read real job duties and see the truth about career outlook to decide if becoming a general health practitioner is right for you.
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Pros and Cons in a Career as a General Health Practitioner

In a career as a general health practitioner, you use your skills to help people get well, discover potentially serious health conditions and treat injuries. Consult the pros and cons table below to decide if this career is for you.

PROS of Becoming a General Health Practitioner
High earning potential (average salary of about $186,000 as of 2014)*
Faster than average job growth (18% from 2012-2022)*
Satisfaction from making a positive difference in peoples' lives**
Opportunity to work in a range of medical facilities and in any location*

CONS of Becoming a General Health Practitioner
Requires lengthy education and training (11 years of school and residency)*
Medical licensure is mandatory*
Board certification is usually required*
Admission to medical school is competitive*
Continuing education required to stay current in medical advances*
May entail long and unusual work hours*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Association of American Medical Colleges

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

General health practitioners are often called general practitioners or family doctors. This type of doctor usually works in a private practice but may also work in other medical settings, such as clinics and hospitals. You may see patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly, for any of a wide range of reasons, including routine health checks, illnesses or injuries. For example, you might examine a child who has a nasal infection, or you might examine an adult to find out why he or she is suffering from constant fatigue.

During examinations, you may gather medical history information from new patients or consult your records for returning patients. In order to assess patients' conditions, you may examine parts of the body, order or conduct diagnostic tests and review the results to locate abnormalities. You may advise patients on preventative care measures or, if a patient is ill, you'll prescribe medications or come up with a treatment plan. If patients need special treatment or on-going care for a medical condition, you may refer them to a specialist, such as an allergist or dermatologist. Additionally, you'll typically oversee a staff of nurses and other healthcare professionals, and you may assign them tasks, such as administering medication, taking vital signs and gathering info from patients.

Job Growth and Salary

Faster-than-average job growth at a rate of 18% from 2012-2022, as predicted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), means doctors should have little trouble finding work in the coming years. The best job opportunities will likely be found in low-income or rural areas, which tend to have a shortage of physicians. Job growth may be hindered by advancing technology that allows doctors to treat patients faster. The introduction of more physician assistants and nurse practitioners may further limit job opportunities. These individuals can handle many of the routine tasks of a doctor, but at a lower rate of pay, thus saving patients and insurance companies money.

The BLS reports a mean annual wage for family and general practitioners of more than $186,000 as of May 2014. The highest-paid physicians worked in medical diagnostic laboratories, earning an annual mean wage of over $230,000. Outpatient care centers offered a high mean salary at about $194,000.

Education and Training Requirements

To become a general health practitioner, you need to complete four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school and at least three years of residency training. Your undergraduate education can be in any major, but you must meet your medical school's biology, physics, chemistry, math and English prerequisites. Medical school admission is competitive, and it's recommended you have high grades and get a high score on the Medical College Admission Test.

Once you enter medical school, you'll spend the first two years earning in-class and laboratory instruction in topics like anatomy, pharmacology and medical law. In your third and fourth years, you'll complete clinical rotations in specialty areas, like family practice and pediatrics, which allow you to gain supervised experience diagnosing and treating patients in a medical facility. You'll continue with supervised training after medical school during your residency, which will usually take place in a hospital or medical center.

Licensure

In order to work as a doctor after medical school, you must obtain a medical license. Licensing is handled by each state, but the process usually requires graduation from an accredited medical school, completion of a residency and passage of exams, including the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination. States may set their own specific licensing conditions, like the amount of postgraduate training required, how many times you may try to take the exam and the time limit for completing the whole exam sequence. You may also be required to meet continuing education requirements to maintain licensure.

Skills

Becoming a doctor requires a commitment to education and an interest in science. Other skills and qualities that may be helpful in this career include:

  • Effective communication skills
  • Attention to details
  • Manual dexterity
  • Patience and a compassionate attitude
  • Leadership skills
  • Physical stamina
  • Critical-thinking skills

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers tend to stress the need for medical education and licensure when advertising for general health practitioners, but many also require board certification particular to the type of care the facility provides. Look through these March 2012 job postings to find out what you'll need to catch the eye of potential employers:

  • A drugstore in California was looking for a primary care physician to provide medical care to company employees. The applicant needs to have three years of clinical experience in primary, urgent or emergency care beyond residency training and be board certified or eligible for certification within one year of being hired. Drug Enforcement Administration, Basic Life Support and Advanced Cardiac Life Support certifications were also required.
  • An Iowa state care facility needed to hire someone to work with mentally and physically challenged patients. The applicant needs to be board certified or eligible for board certification as a General Practitioner, Internist or Family Practitioner.
  • A health clinic in Pennsylvania was seeking a family/general practitioner to provide comprehensive medical services to families.

How to Maximize Your Skills

Get Board Certified

While certification is not mandatory, job postings and the BLS reveal that many employers prefer to hire applicants who are board certified. Certification is offered through the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) and shows employers that you have passed extensive testing to prove your skills and knowledge in the medical field. While certification is usually offered in a specialty, a general health practitioner might earn, for example, the family medicine certification through the American Board of Family Medicine, which is a member board of the ABMS.

Continue Your Education

You might be required to take continuing education courses to maintain licensure, but you can also use continuing education as a way to stay abreast of advancements and current in new technology in the medical field. The American Medical Association offers a range of in-print and online continuing education materials as well as live training activities, webinars and conferences. You could also subscribe to the Journal of the American Medical Association or some of the AMA's specialty journals.

Other Careers to Consider

If you want a more focused medical career, you might consider becoming a specialty physician. The BLS reports that job outlook should be particularly good for doctors who specialize in healthcare services called for by the growing elderly population, like cardiology or radiology. A specialty position may require you to complete additional residency training and obtain board certification, but it can also lead to higher earnings; specialists earned a median salary of about $357,000 in 2010, much more than primary care physicians, who made about $202,000, according to the BLS.

Of course, becoming a general health practitioner is a lengthy process. If you aren't interested in a career that takes so long to prepare for, then consider other medical career paths, such as becoming a chiropractor, physician assistant or registered nurse.

Chiropractor

Chiropractors treat problems and issues with the musculoskeletal system. Through manipulation of the spine, you help relieve pressure, pain and other issues by putting the spine back into alignment. Becoming a chiropractor requires three years of undergraduate study and completion of four years in a chiropractor program. You must also get a state chiropractor's license. The BLS reports that jobs in this field were projected to grow by 28% from 2010-2020, which is faster than growth for doctors; however, chiropractors earned considerably less - a mean salary of about $79,000 as of 2011.

Physician Assistant

A physician assistant (PA) can perform many of the same duties as a doctor, though they work under the supervision of a licensed physician. You'll need a master's degree and state licensure to work as a PA. Jobs in this field were projected to grow at a much-faster-than-average rate of 30% from 2010-2020, and these professionals earned about $89,000 as of 2011, according to the BLS.

Registered Nurse

As a registered nurse, you'll coordinate patient services in a healthcare facility and provide support to doctors and other medical staff. You may work in a variety of medical facilities, such as nursing homes, hospitals and specialty centers. You must be licensed to be a nurse, but you can get started in this career with as little as a nursing diploma. According to the BLS, the job growth rate for nurses is the same as for doctors (26%); however, nurses earn only about $69,000 on average per year, which is less than half of a doctor's average salary.

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