Career Paths into Civilian Medicine & Healthcare

Whether you’re already medically qualified or you’ve had your appetite whetted by training or experience while in uniform, civilian healthcare and medicine offer excellent career prospects.

“People coming from the Services are a good fit for the NHS and independent health sector because, generally, they will have had quite a structured career progression. They will come in with specialised clinical training, but also leadership and management training and will have worked across sector boundaries that many nurses in civvy street haven’t. Also, people coming with a nursing cap badge or other medical qualification will have been involved in education and training. So, from a whole educational health promotion, health protection, leadership and management point of view, anyone coming from the defence nursing community certainly has a lot to offer in civilian practice.”

That was the view of Captain JP Nolan, a member of 256 (City of London) Field Hospital (Volunteers). Although initially trained in the civilian world, he’s been in the TA for more than five years; as a member of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corp, he’s worked in several Military hospitals including Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, when not acting as a national adviser for Acute Emergency and Critical Care at the Royal College of Nursing.

There’s another reason why Service-leavers with medical qualifications and experiences are a good match for their civilian counterparts: for much of the time, the work is exactly the same. “The way in which defence healthcare is covered in the media would have you think we were working in dark tents with very severely injured people all the time,” he told Civvy Street. “That’s obviously a very important component, operationally, but trauma work is actually probably the smallest part of what we do. Most defence healthcare is primary care, health protection and health promotion as a way of maintaining operational capabilities through force protection.”


But it’s not just Service-leavers with existing medical and healthcare qualifications who “JP” believes have a clear pathway into civilian healthcare and medical careers “Speaking more broadly, for people from all of the Services, there are things that make a transfer into (the likes of) civilian nursing practice possibly a good career option,” he added. “If you look at some of the core common skills, they align very well with the likes of the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s Code of Conduct; they talk very much about respecting others, of selfless commitment, etc. The values and standards align very closely to a career in health.”

Plus, a Service-leaver is almost certainly ahead of their civilian peers when it comes to the basics. “Generally anyone in defence will have some medical training,” JP explained. “At the very minimum, they’ll have a health protection brief, they’ll be taught about infection control, they’ll be taught about environmental health, and they’ll be taught about some level of battlefield first aid, even if it’s just self-care. Everyone will have some exposure and people can take a liking to it, so obviously a good career option.”

Private Robert Derbyshire, of 1 Medical Regiment, would agree with that. In addition to providing medical care to both Military personnel and local Afghans while on a six month attachment to A Company, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, he also provided medical training to fellow British soldiers and medics in the Afghan Army. “I was based at a checkpoint and would go out on daily patrols. It was important that even infantrymen who were not medics had some basic medical knowledge just in case I or another medic they were with got injured,” he said.


So, whether the “on a need to know basis” medical training that you received as part of your Military training has whetted your appetite for more, or you’ve enjoyed a structured healthcare career within the Services, you’re stepping out into the civilian healthcare world with some very real advantages over your civilian peers—and that’s not even mentioning the kind of adaptability and experience of working under pressure that Service-leavers bring with them and which civilian employers can find attractive.

If you’re shifting into the resettlement stage of your career, there is a choice of healthcare and nursing-related training courses and workshops available as part of your resettlement package. These range from one or two-day courses (in areas such as moving & handling, dementia awareness or First Aid at Work) to months-long programmes (awarding diplomas/NVQs Level 2 or 3) in the likes of counselling or health & social care. These qualifications are, of course, recognised and valued by civilian employers; indeed, they can even be a usefully distinctive ‘add-on’ for other careers; for example, brushing up your driving skills with a 15-day Ambulance and Emergency Response Driving course can open up opportunities as an ambulance care assistant/patient transport service driver with ambulance trusts across the UK.

The alternative, of course, is to undertake more in-depth medical training via distance learning while still in the Armed Forces, or part – or full-time after leaving. Remember that the most familiar healthcare careers are degree-based; however, many universities around the country now offer Foundation courses which act as a route into medical training for those who possess appropriate professional experience. Your Military experience could enable you to fast-track your training as a paramedic, assuming you can show you’ve had appropriate ‘work experience’. A spokesperson from St George’s, University of London, said: “If they are working in the Armed Forces with health elements to their role, then that would definitely benefit their application, especially if they’re doing that as a job on a permanent basis.”


If you’ve already a firmly-established medical career within the Armed Forces, then you’re likely to have among the smoothest journeys of all into your new civilian career; not only are skilled and experienced Personnel always in demand, but you may already have experience of working within civilian hospitals, albeit within specific Services-designated wards.

Of course, there may be a few bumps down the road; not least the challenge of matching your Military rank (which also factors in non-medical aspects of your Services career) and the NHS’s own existing hierarchies and pay bands.

You may also need to undertake some career development training to bring you up to speed in aspects of the job that were not so prevalent within the Services community; for example, long term care for elderly and disabled people, or psychiatric care. The NHS is committed to offering development and learning opportunities for all full-time and part-time staff.

Regardless of where you’re starting out, however, your career prospects are good, not least because the NHS and the UK’s growing private healthcare sector (which, according to the Private Healthcare Market Report 2013 is expected to grow by 5% a year up to 2016) are currently finding it difficult to recruit suitably trained staff. Particular areas of growth, for both the NHS and private healthcare market, are likely to be in long-term care for elderly and disabled patients, as the UK’s population grows proportionately older.


Emergency medicine is an emerging and potentially exciting specialty; the frontline, you could say, of modern healthcare. Arguably, it’s the only hospital-based specialty where doctors can expect to encounter a complete spectrum of illness and injury. As a result, emergency doctors are generalists in the broadest sense of the term, working to diagnose, manage and counter acute illness and/or injury, though a recognised sub-speciality is focusing on the emergency medical needs of children.

Emergency medical trainees enter specialty training after five years of medical school and two years of foundation training, which will include anaesthesia, acute medicine, intensive care, and emergency medicine. They must also pass the Membership of the College of Emergency Medicine (MCEM) examination. Trainees will then go onto higher training, lasting a further three years leading to the Fellowship of the College of Emergency Medicine exam. Upon successful completion of this path, doctors will be eligible for entry on the General Medical Council’s Specialist Register and to apply for a post as a Consultant in Emergency Medicine.

Service-leavers are likely to be attracted by the dynamic unpredictability of the workload, the immediacy of the decision-making required on a daily basis, and emergency medicine’s emphasis on teamwork.


The provision of out of hours care continues to be a controversial element of the NHS, especially in England, as GPs and the Department of Health try to find a cost-effective balance ensuring doctors can enjoy ‘reasonable’ working hours while still meeting the medical needs of patients overnight and at weekends.

Until 2004, responsibility for organising out-of-hours care was totally in the hands of GPs; since then, a wider range of providers have become involved, including commercial care companies, although Dr Clare Gerada, Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, recently suggested that GPs still “provide 90% of out-of-hours care through different routes, whether that’s through walk in clinics, urgent care centres, GP co-operatives or privately run services.”

Among the most recognised sources of medical advice are the telephone helplines: NHS Direct (or, in most of England, the new non-emergency NHS 111 service), NHS Direct Wales, and NHS 24 (covering Scotland).

Although there continue to be many media stories highlighting problems arising from inexperienced staff, this actually highlights the real employment opportunities, especially for those with appropriate medical or nursing experience and an appetite for no two working days being the same.


Radiography is the use of X-rays to view and examine the interior of objects; medical radiography is concerned with the human body and can be sub-divided into two specialisms: diagnostic radiography focuses on the identification of injury and disease; therapeutic radiography is the precise targeting of radiation as part of medical treatment—for example, combating cancerous tumours.

To work in radiography you will need an appropriate BSc degree course in either diagnostic or therapeutic radiography; entry qualifications will vary between institutions, but some do accept vocational qualifications, occupational routes and accreditation of previous experience-based learning.

Courses usually last for three years (four years in Scotland) full time, and cover subjects including: anatomy, physiology and pathology; science and instrumentation; image interpretation, as well as aspects of patient care such as first aid and counselling.

Coming from the Services, you are likely to have the experience, maturity and teamwork skills necessary for the work; as a radiographer, you’ll be expected to communicate with both other healthcare professionals and patients.

Therapy radiographers in particular are likely to get to know patients well because they’ll see them regularly through the course of treatment. It is important they can develop a rapport with the individual and their family.


Nursing is a diverse, challenging and rewarding profession on the healthcare frontline, providing care and support to patients and their families both within hospital situations and in the community (in people’s homes, GP surgeries, clinics, nursing and residential homes, occupational health services and hospices or residential care run by voluntary organisations). It continues to be a changing profession, not least thanks to an increased emphasis across the UK on public health and disease prevention.

Full time nursing degree courses last three years and are offered by universities across the UK. In most cases you will have to decide on which branch of nursing you wish to focus: adult nursing, children’s nursing (working with 0-18 year olds), learning disability nursing (helping those with learning difficulties live independent and fulfilling lives), mental health nursing or midwifery.

According to the NHS Careers website, previous theoretical and practical learning can be used to meet some of the course commitments, up to one third of a three year programme. Coming from the Armed Forces, you are likely to have a range of cross-branch experience that will be particularly valued, as well as an innate understanding of team working and a commitment to getting the job done.

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