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What Is a Clinician and How Do I Become One?

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A clinician bumps elbows with a young patient.

In health care, the umbrella term “clinician” encompasses a number of different roles. Strictly defined, a clinician is a professional who is qualified in the clinical practice of medicine, psychology, or psychiatry.

A clinician is what most people think of when they picture frontline medical workers who deliver hands-on patient care, such as a nurse, physician assistant or a physician. Many individuals pursue health care degrees that qualify them as clinicians because it opens the door to rewarding careers. Some clinicians then earn an advanced degree such as a Healthcare Master of Business Administration to pursue senior administrative-level positions.

What Is a Clinician?

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a clinician is a health care professional who provides principal care for patients. Their expertise in the ongoing management of chronic conditions and diseases makes them distinct.

For instance, a family nurse practitioner (FNP) may discover one of their young patients has asthma. They will then develop a treatment plan that is adjusted as the patient ages and the condition improves or worsens. An FNP is just one of the many examples of clinicians who deliver patient care.

Clinicians may go by the following job titles:

  • Registered nurse (RN): A frontline clinician who treats a wide variety of patients; they are generally the first point of contact at a hospital or health care facility
  • Nurse practitioner (NP): An advanced practice registered nurse with skills that go beyond a traditional RN; NPs typically specialize in a specific patient base or area of medicine
  • Psychologist: A mental health professional who helps patients overcome a variety of mental health challenges such as depression or anxiety
  • Physiotherapist: A physical therapist who works with patients who have physical challenges that limit mobility, balance and function
  • Physician assistant (PA): A support caregiver who works with teams of doctors and surgeons to help examine, diagnose and administer treatment to patients
  • Physician: A medical doctor with advanced knowledge in providing treatment for a wide range of ailments and injuries; they are usually the highest level health care worker in a hospital or facility
  • Dentist: A doctor who focuses on oral health
  • Optometrist: A health care professional who focuses on vision care
  • Clinical pharmacist: A pharmacist who works directly with patients to optimize pharmaceutical treatment

What Does a Clinician Do?

Clinicians can hold a variety of positions and work with a wide range of patients. This makes it difficult to exactly define what a clinician does. Although a dentist, a physician and a clinical pharmacist all fall under the clinician umbrella, the three roles have very different responsibilities and duties. A physician and a clinical pharmacist would never seek to extract a wisdom tooth, for example, where a dentist might perform this procedure several times a week.

However, there are some commonalities that clinicians share:

  • They all have direct contact with patients
  • They are all health care professionals who require licensure to work or practice
  • They all work in medical settings
  • They all help patients manage their conditions and overall health

Beyond those broad similarities, different types of clinicians have distinct duties. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physicians diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses. When physicians examine patients they take detailed medical histories, order and interpret diagnostic tests and prescribe medications. Physicians also counsel patients on the importance of preventative health care such as vaccinations, cancer screenings, regular exercise and a healthy diet.

Registered nurses, another crucial clinician role, are frontline medical workers who are usually the first point of contact for incoming patients. According to the BLS there were over three million working RNs in 2020, making them one of the most common clinicians in health care. Their typical duties include assessing patients and their conditions, taking detailed records of symptoms and medical histories, observing patients and administering medicines or other treatments.

Physician assistants are another common clinician who work in a variety of specialties and settings. They may work in trauma units, orthopedics, neurology or cardiology, for example. Physician assistants are committed to helping their team of staff physicians in a supporting role. Their duties include taking patient medical histories, conducting exams, ordering and interpreting tests and assisting during surgeries.

How to Become a Clinician

Due to the many different clinician roles in health care, there are several different educational paths open to those who wish to choose this rewarding profession. What’s standard across the board is that all clinician roles require a degree and often certification that endorses their skills. Additionally, many clinician roles require state licensure to practice.

To provide an example of how to become a clinician, the following is one way to become a registered nurse:

  • Complete an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree
  • Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to earn certification
  • Apply for licensure in the state of practice

Physicians follow a different path:

  • Earn an undergraduate degree in biology, biochemistry, human physiology, psychology, mathematics, engineering or economics
  • Pass the MCAT exam
  • Apply to medical school
  • Enroll in either a medical doctor (MD) or osteopathic medicine (DO) four-year degree program
  • Pass part one and two of the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) while in medical school
  • Choose a specialty during year four of medical school
  • Graduate from medical school and begin residency
  • Pass part three of the USMLE
  • Earn applicable board certifications
  • Apply for licensure in the state of practice

As this illustrates, paths to becoming a clinician vary greatly depending on the role in question. Some clinicians are able to start their careers in as little as two years, while physicians must invest several years before they can work with patients with full autonomy.

Leadership Roles for Clinicians

Some clinicians choose to move into advanced roles that focus on administration, management or clinical research. Common leadership positions include health administrator, clinician leader and hospital manager. The big difference between these positions and other clinician jobs such as RNs, physicians and physician assistants is that leadership roles aren’t patient facing.

For instance, a health administrator is generally responsible for the following duties:

  • Evaluating budgets, creating reports and making recommendations to optimize finances or cut costs
  • Overseeing employees and other staff scheduling
  • Overseeing and organizing hard copy and electronic patient records
  • Monitoring health care regulations and laws
  • Devising ways to improve the efficiency of health care services
  • Interviewing and hiring new staff members
  • Appealing to local governments for funding

The typical duties of a hospital manager may include:

  • Overseeing the hiring, training and overall performance of the health care workforce
  • Serving as the liaison between health care workers and hospital leadership
  • Implementing both short- and long-term goals and supporting hospital staff to meet those goals
  • Overseeing the hospital budget
  • Streamlining or improving operational procedures
  • Developing policies to improve the hospital or the patient care experience
  • Monitoring health care regulations and laws
  • Collaborating with doctors, specialists and members of health care leadership

Although a clinical background can provide valuable insight and perspective for clinical leadership roles, it is not necessarily required. While clinicians provide medical care, leadership positions focus on administration and operations — the business of health care.

Become a Leader in Health Care

Clinicians and health care leadership both play important roles in the overall health care system. Clinicians such as nurses and physicians take on the tasks of delivering high-quality health care to patients in need. Those in leadership positions such as managers and administrators handle the administrative tasks, so patient-facing clinicians can focus on their roles. And clinicians who go on to advanced management education are uniquely qualified to lead.

Those interested in pursuing a career in health care would do well to consider investing in their education. The George Washington University online Healthcare (MBA – HCMBA) program combines business leadership skills and health care experience; a powerful combination for those interested in leadership roles.

Core courses for the GW online Healthcare MBA program include financial accounting, marketing, and strategic management. Additionally, students have the opportunity to specialize their education through electives in subjects such as patient safety outcomes, MBA in Healthcare epidemiology, and the clinical research industry.

Discover how a degree from GW can help you pursue your career goals in health care.

Recommended Reading: 

Hospital Finance: Past, Present and Future

How Big Data Is Used in Biotech

The Future of Health Insurance

Example Sources:

American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA), What is a PA?

American College of Nurse-Midwives, About the Midwifery Profession

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Clinicians

Chron, Responsibilities of a Clinician

Indeed, Health Administrator Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications

Indeed, How To Become a Nurse Care Coordinator

Indeed, Q&A: What Major for Doctors Should You Choose?

National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, What is a CNS?

National Council on Aging, Chronic vs. Acute Medical Conditions: What’s the Difference?

The Balance Careers, What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Physicians and Surgeons

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses