Healthcare professionals include physicians, nurses, allied healthcare workers, non-skilled workers, and mental health workers. There are many different types of care that patients need, and a professional to fill every role. Most of these professionals are specifically trained to provide certain types of care and are licensed or certified to do the jobs they do.
Patients receiving any type of healthcare must be aware of the professionals helping to care for them and what they can expect. Patients and their loved ones can be proactive in ensuring quality care by understanding the roles of healthcare workers and speaking up if it seems that anyone is not providing the best care.
Primary Care Providers
Primary care providers are healthcare workers who patients often see first, for wellness checkups and for specific complaints, like injuries, illnesses, or symptoms. They help patients manage their overall health and wellness and refer them to other types of care providers as needed. Most people have a physician for a primary care provider, usually referred to as an internist or general practitioner. Pediatricians serve as primary care providers for children, while some women rely on their gynecologists for primary care.
The primary care providers do not have to be physicians. There are a few other types of healthcare professionals who can provide this service and are not medical doctors. These include nurse practitioners who are nurses with advanced training. Nurse practitioners may specialize in women’s health care, pediatrics, geriatrics, or family medicine. They are authorized to assess and diagnose patients and prescribe medications.
A physician assistant is another example of a non-physician primary care provider. These professionals work under a physician but can examine and assess patients, make diagnoses, and prescribe medications. A DO, or doctor of osteopathic medicine, is also a primary care provider. These doctors have gone through medical training as well as additional training in osteopathic medicine. They provide primary care services with a holistic approach and a focus on the musculoskeletal system.
There are a few levels of nursing, and most nurses are not trained to be primary caregivers but work in a supportive role. They take care of patients, communicate with and work with physicians, administer medications, assess and monitor patients, and help ensure patients are comfortable. The degree to which a nurse may participate in or conduct exams of patients or do procedures depends on the level of training and licensing.
Certified nursing assistants, or CNAs, are aides to nurses. They are responsible for most of the non-medical care patients need, such as bathing and dressing. CNAs must take a short educational course and pass an examination to become certified. The next level up is the licensed practical nurse (LPN), called a licensed vocational nurse in some states. These professionals have more training than CNAs, usually a practical nursing diploma. They have more responsibilities than CNAs and can do some medical procedures, like administering medicine.
A registered nurse, or RN, is what people most often associate with nursing. These professionals make up the bulk of nursing staff. They hold either bachelors or associates degrees and must pass a specific exam to become an RN. They have a lot of responsibilities with patients, including directing the work of CNAs and LPNs and other health care workers. Registered nurses may get advanced degrees and specialize in certain areas of medicine, like anesthesia or labor and delivery. These nurses are called advanced practice registered nurses.
Allied Healthcare Workers
Most people who receive medical care will encounter allied health care workers. These are the workers who are trained in very specific areas to support the work of nurses, physicians, and specialists. Most allied health care workers are trained through diploma or certificate programs, or sometimes through associate degree programs. Examples of allied health care workers include radiology technicians, surgical technicians, medical assistants, dental hygienists, and sonographers. Allied health care workers with more advanced training include physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech and language therapists.
Mental Health Professionals
Healthcare is not limited to physical, medical care. Good quality healthcare also addresses mental health. There are several professionals in the field of mental health who examine, assess, diagnose, and treat patients struggling with mental illnesses. While primary care providers may offer some degree of mental health care, patients are often referred to psychiatrists and other mental health workers for complete care.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental health. They can diagnose and treat patients and prescribe medications. Psychologists are professionals with doctoral degrees in psychology. They can evaluate and diagnose patients, offer treatment, and provide specialized types of therapy, but they cannot prescribe patients medications. Mental health professionals with less training but who can provide similar services include therapists and counselors. Any of these professionals may specialize in certain areas of treatment, like addiction, family therapy, or behavioral therapy.
Clinical social workers are professionals who may also provide some degree of mental health care, including evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment. They often work through community groups or government agencies to help individuals and families. Most mental health professionals are licensed in some way through the state in which they practice. It is important to check these credentials when choosing a therapist or other mental health care provider.
Non-Skilled Healthcare Workers
In addition to all the highly-trained and dedicated healthcare professionals working to provide care for patients, there are many non-skilled workers. These include non-skilled workers in hospitals, like cooks and janitors, workers in medical offices, like receptionists, and also those people who take care of patients in nursing homes or in their own homes. In-home aides, for instance, care for patients but in non-skilled ways: doing chores, running errands, helping with mobility.
Ethics and Quality of Care
Healthcare workers of all types of a big responsibility to provide ethical, high-quality care for patients. Patients in need of care are vulnerable and rely on and trust the healthcare workers who assist and treat them. Providing good quality care starts with the appropriate education and licensing. All healthcare workers who are skilled must be trained, educated, and licensed or certified. Most of them must also continue training indefinitely, participating in ongoing professional development and education courses to maintain and improve skills and knowledge.
Other factors that contribute to quality care in providers include good communication skills with other professionals to help treat patients, having access to medical information, listening to patients and their needs and concerns, and following a code of ethics. Healthcare ethics include providing patients with dignified care, personal attention, and best practices. The ethical code also includes privacy, maintaining secure records and information about patients.
There are many healthcare professionals who together make up the complete spectrum of care that people rely on to stay and get well. These professionals range from the unskilled to highly-trained specialists and everyone in between, all contributing to the care patients receive. As you receive care from professionals it is important to understand the role each person plays, what their responsibilities are, that they are licensed appropriately, that they are ethical, and that they are providing the best possible care.