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by Rebecca Lingerfelt, DPT

The required training and education to become a PT has undergone some great improvements in the past few years, making our field a more capable profession. The result is a higher level of responsibility as part of your medical team.

In the early stages of the profession at the time of the Polio epidemic, physical therapists were technicians under the direction of a supervising physician.  Times have changed.  We now have the education and experience to evaluate a patient and direct care autonomously. Currently there are physical therapists practicing with a master’s degree (MSPT or MPT) or a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree (DPT), all of whom are licensed by the state in which they practice and must maintain licensure year to year. The goal of our prefession is that by 2020 all practicing physical therapists will be doctors, either by entering the profession with a DPT degree or returning for the necessary schooling to earn the DPT degree.

So, why is it necessary for your physical therapist to be a doctor, and what does it mean? The doctorate education is a 3-year full-time graduate program, including a variety of classes on the anatomy and physiology of each system in the body as well as many months of full-time clinical experience. Although we did not go to medical school, the DPT degree is a clinical doctorate more similar to an MD than an academic PhD. Compared to the master’s program, the DPT education includes more information on evidence-based practice (discussed in last week’s blog) and differential diagnosis. Evidence-based medicine means that, as doctors, we are constantly and critically reading the research available and basing treatments on the best proven outcomes published, clinical experience, and patient values.

The need for learning differential diagnosis comes from the fact that people are now able to go directly to a physical therapist, which is beneficial in that they are treated more quickly and efficiently. However, the responsibility now falls on your physical therapist instead of a primary care physician to determine if treating your injury is within the scope of our practice, and if not, to whom we should refer you for the best possible care. We also know how to screen for illnesses that may actually be something more serious that needs the care of some other specialist.

Physical therapists can be a patient’s direct access to medical treatment.  Your PT is constantly learning and researching the best method to treat your particular injury as advances in medical science develop.

Dr. Lingerfelt is a physical therapist at Boston Sports Medicine