Best Programs: Health Sciences

Health sciences grads are equipped to solve some of our country’s biggest health-care challenges
By Lisa Kadane

March 1, 2024

Public health is still a hot topic four years after the start of the pandemic, so it’s little wonder there’s been a surge of interest in health sciences degrees in Canada. But while “health sciences” has a nice ring to it, not everyone understands what it covers. Adding to the confusion is a lack of consistency in how the degree is presented at Canadian universities—some schools, like Queen’s, have a faculty of health sciences, which include a bachelor of health sciences among other degrees, while other schools, like the University of Calgary, offer a B.H.Sc. through the school of medicine or a different faculty. 

A bachelor of health sciences is not the same as a medical sciences degree, which is more theory-based and traditionally launches students into med school. Nor is it as specific as a nursing degree, which has a straightforward career trajectory. Instead, it’s a broader degree that covers a range of topics related to human health, including social science courses such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and ethics, in addition to life sciences like biology, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology.

Health sciences programs mirror what’s happening in medicine and health, which are becoming more interdisciplinary. Medicine has drawn from other disciplines for years to solve problems—modern medical imaging originated in a physics lab, for example. Recently, artificial intelligence, thanks to computer science, has led to the creation of numerous health-care applications.  

Blending social sciences into a health sciences degree teaches students to think about how health is affected by geography, culture, religion and upbringing, and better prepares them for working with, and understanding, a diversity of patients. 

This solid foundation in human health offers a wide breadth of career paths. Many graduates carry on to medical, dental or optometry school, or pursue careers in chiropractic, physiotherapy or occupational therapy, which also requires additional schooling. Others holding a health sciences degree can work in public health, health administration, the pharmaceutical industry, cognitive science, biomedical science or bioinformatics, an emerging field that merges biology with data science. 

An important consideration for prospective students is that these jobs aren’t just hopes—the health-care field is hiring. Anyone who has struggled to find a family physician, or waited months to see a specialist, knows there’s a human health resources problem across Canada. It’s not just a doctor and nurse shortage, either—medical lab technologists, pharmacists, dietitians, audiologists and a range of therapists are in high demand. By 2030, demand for health-care workers is expected to increase by 16 per cent, a job growth rate faster than any other industry, according to Randstad, a human resources consulting firm.

In addition to the tangible benefits of landing a job that either directly or indirectly helps others, it’s an exciting time to enter the field. Artificial intelligence is already revolutionizing health care in the areas of data management and imaging, and will have an impact in specialties like pathology and the way disease is diagnosed. AI is being used to detect melanoma, for example, with some software achieving 100 percent accuracy, and robot-assisted surgery is no longer the stuff of science fiction movies. 

The possibilities are expansive and inspiring, but the field’s scope can also be overwhelming. Prospective students should try to focus on their interests and endgame when looking at different programs and, if possible, zero in on the ultimate goal, whether that’s to become a doctor, a biomedical lawyer or a health educator. 

Another way to look at it is for the student to ask what health issues they want to fix. Surgeons solve very different problems that researchers or health policy analysts do. With that in mind, students can delve into the curriculum to make sure it’s a match for their path. They should look at the education environment—teaching approach, class size, opportunities for research or co-op placements—to ensure they’ll thrive.

A health sciences degree is also academically rigorous, so a program with robust student support, and one with adequate academic mentors and advisers, is critical for success.

Standout Health Sciences Programs

Western University

Western-School of Health Studies kinesiology_lab_FHS(1)
(Photo courtesy of Western University)

Western University’s school of health studies lets undergraduates choose their own adventure in the realm of human health as they customize a four-year bachelor of health sciences degree. Students are free early on to explore areas of interest through electives such as psychology, philosophy and anthropology.
As they advance through the program, they choose an area of specialization or major. The most flexible is the health sciences module, which offers courses in youth and adolescent health, social media and health, health in aging populations, health promotion, health ethics and healthcare law, among others.

McMaster University

McMaster -CAP_1564_Rafay Mughal_Microscopic plate_jpg
(Photo courtesy of McMaster University)

McMaster’s top-rated four-year bachelor of health sciences honours program takes a slightly different approach to education starting in its first year, when students are introduced to small-group, problem-based learning through inquiry courses. Inquiry courses teach students to think critically about health problems and collaborate with colleagues for answers—much as they would in a real-life health-care setting. Not only do students learn how to work with people and collaborate, academic coach Joy Xu from Youthfully says the open community and peer support help alleviate the anxiety and pressure of entering university.

University of Calgary

(Photo courtesy of the University of Calgary)

The University of Calgary’s inquiry-based, research-focused four-year bachelor of health sciences honours program lets students select between three majors: bioinformatics, biomedical sciences and health and society. The program is designed so students develop core competencies in communication and health research, no matter which health stream they choose. Students can also complete a self-directed research project over the course of their study.

Simon Fraser University

zabrina brumme’s lab in action shot for a brochure from advancem
(Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University)

SFU’s faculty of health sciences offers a four-year bachelor of science in health sciences that blends the scientific and social aspects of public health with an emphasis on biological science and developing lab skills. The program combines hands-on laboratory experience, on par with medical sciences, with the chance to do experiments in pharmacology, toxicology, immunology and virology. Also of note are the major’s unique areas of study, such as health technologies.