Will healthcare prove a popular choice?

Covid-19 might persuade more students to opt for healthcare courses

In 2008, a massive global recession gave the world a crash course in economics. Suddenly, credit default swaps, hedge funds and equity ratios (don’t ask) were part of our day-to-day conversations.

Something similar is happening during the Covid-19 pandemic, as we all become familiar with new terms such as “flattening the curve”, “the R rate” and “social distancing”. As health moves to the forefront of global consciousness, the average person has a much stronger understanding of virology and pandemics than ever before. Could this lead to an increase in the number of students on health courses including medicine, nursing, physiotherapy and dentistry?

"I think Covid has probably expanded people's interest in healthcare," says Prof Arnie Hill, head of the school of medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland. "It is such a rewarding career helping others."

Hill says he chose a career in medicine because he liked working with people and with his hands, so a surgical career was the perfect fit for him. There is variety in the job, too, with every patient having their own personal story.

For many people reading an article like this, they will have known for a long time that they wanted to be a doctor, nurse or dentist.

This year might be a little different, however. With figures like Prof Mary Horgan, Prof Philip Nolan, Prof Sam McConkey and Dr Kim Roberts becoming household names,  students who perhaps never gave medicine a second thought now have the importance of healthcare firmly in their minds. In the short to medium term, healthcare is a priority, but how might that translate into jobs seven or eight years down the line?

“The investment in health has massively expanded across the globe,” says Hill. “I have no doubt that public health as a speciality will have a greater prominence in healthcare in the post-Covid future.”

It's worth noting, however, that registrations for the H-Pat – an entrance test that assesses whether students have the right aptitude to be admitted to third-level medicine courses – closed on January, long before Covid-19 restrictions were widely expected in Ireland and some time before the first cases were reported in Italy, so it's not expected that applications to study medicine will rise significantly this year.

Nursing and other healthcare-related professions including pharmacy and physiotherapy may see growing interest, however.

Hill expects to see changes in medicine over the coming years. At the moment, his work has focused on treating symptomatic patients with breast cancer, and elective surgical work has diminished significantly.

“Many things about how we deliver healthcare will change in the future,” he says. “I think more consultations will be done by phone or video. As head of the medical school, it has been a significant achievement in graduating our final-year medical students on time for joining the workforce early this May. The logistics for organising clinical exams for student doctors in the Covid era was challenging.”

These can be challenging courses and the pay can vary: a top consultant can earn about €200,000 a year but a registered and experienced nurse may be on only €40,000 a year. It is possible, of course, that public disquiet – as well as public health needs – will drive nursing salaries to a higher level, but it’s hard to predict with any certainty where we will be in four or five years’ time, or whether a drive towards austerity and budget cuts could hit nurses.


In the meantime, there is no shortage of places to study health sciences.

General nursing courses are available at Trinity College, UL, UCC, UCD, NUI Galway, RCSI, DCU, WIT, Letterkenny IT, St Angela's College, GMIT, and Athlone IT.

There's also plenty of options for students who wish to train as mental health nurses with courses at DCU, Dundalk IT and UCD; as psychiatric nurses at Letterkenny IT, GMIT, Athlone IT and WIT; as intellectual disability nurses at St Angela's College in Sligo, Trinity College, UCC and UL; or as children's nurses at DCU, Trinity, UCD and UCC.

Students who don’t secure a college place, or who want to taste nursing before they make a commitment, can also apply to a one-year pre-nursing course at a local ETB. It’s worth bearing in mind that nurses work in a variety of settings including hospitals, GPs, nursing homes, hospice and in the community.

Students can also consider midwifery at Trinity College, UCD, NUI Galway, UL and WIT.

UCC and Trinity College are the only places where undergraduates can study dentistry in Ireland, although RCSI offers a postgraduate course. There are also a number of places where students can study dental nursing including Athlone Institute of Technology and UCC, while students can train for level-seven dental hygienist courses at UCC and Trinity. Dentists are rarely unemployed and often run their own practices.

Physiotherapy students can study at UL, UCD, RCSI or Trinity College. Employment prospects for physiotherapists have improved significantly in recent years as they have become more embedded in the health service, and roles can be quite diverse: some work with musculoskeletal conditions; some with patients who have burns or neurological conditions, while others have been on the frontline during Covid-19, working with patients who have respiratory conditions.

Selection of CAO points, 2019

Dentistry (UCC): 590

Physiotherapy (RCSI): 532

Medicine (NUI Galway): 726

Nursing (Athlone IT): 410

Midwifery (UCD): 445