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What is a Doctor of Physical Therapy?

Having been a practicing physical therapist for over six years now, I often get the question “What is a Doctor of Physical Therapy (D.P.T)?” This question comes not only from my patients, but from other medical professionals as well.  The simple answer is “an individual with a doctorate in physical therapy.”  However, the question (and answer) can get fairly complicated.  In my professional experience as a physical therapist (or as a D.P.T.) most people do not know what a physical therapist is, let alone a D.P.T.  And, if an individual has not actually been to physical therapy before, most people have no idea what to expect when they are informed they need physical therapy.

When talking about the definition of physical therapy, most people have general ideas and assumptions regarding our profession.  Common answers include massage, exercise, ice, heat, or electrical stimulation.  Other individuals say that physical therapists are like Chiropractors.  Yes, physical therapists may utilize exercise, ice, heat, and electrical stimulation as part of treatment on a patient.  No, we are not massage therapists, and we are certainly not Chiropractors.  If you look up the definition of physical therapy in Webster’s dictionary, you will likely find something along the lines of “the treatment of disease by physical and mechanical means…as massage, regulated exercise, water, light, heat, and electricity.”  A physical therapist would then be an individual that treats disease by physical and mechanical means…as massage, regulated exercise, water, light, heat, and electricity.”  Those may be nice definitions, but probably do not effectively answer our question.  The definition of a physical therapy, and physical therapist can also be found in Nevada Revised Statute (NRS 640.022, NRS 640.024, )  Here, physical therapy is defined as:

The specialty in the field of health which is concerned with prevention of disability and physical rehabilitation of persons having congenital or acquired disabilities.  A physical therapist is then defined as an individual licensed to practice physical therapy. The practice would include  performing and interpreting of tests and measurements as an aid to evaluation or treatment; the planning of initial and subsequent programs of treatment on the basis of the results of tests; the administering of treatment through the use of therapeutic exercise and massage; the mobilization of joints by the use of therapeutic exercise, mechanical devices, and therapeutic agents which employ the properties of air, water, electricity, sound and radiant energy.

Although these definitions are useful, they probably still do not answer the above-mentioned questions.  For practical and simple understanding, a physical therapist would be defined as a body mechanic.  An individual would need to see a physical therapist if a particular part of his or her body (arm, leg, shoulder, back, knee, ankle etc.) did not work right.  When your car doesn’t work right, you go see a car mechanic. When your heart doesn’t work right, you go see a cardiologist.  When your vision doesn’t work right, you go to an optometrist or an ophthalmologist.  Well, when your body (muscle, joint, ligaments) doesn’t work right, you need to go see a physical therapist.

As our professional practice has increased in complexity as well as scope, it has become necessary to make important changes to meet these increased demands.  Physical therapy educational institutions have increased the breadth and depth of their educational programs.  In fact, today nearly all Physical Therapy Schools are, or are in the process of becoming, doctoral programs.  Another important change involves our title designation.  In the near future, the title of Physical Therapist will likely be replaced by “Doctor of Physical Therapy.”  Other important changes will also take place over the next 5-10 years.  The American Physical Therapy Association (our national professional organization) has outlined a vision for our profession in the near future.  Called Vision 2020, this document details the important goals and changes in physical therapy that will likely take place on or before the year 2020.  A summary of this vision is as follows:

Physical therapy, by 2020, will be provided by physical therapists who are doctors of physical therapy and who may be board-certified specialists. Consumers will have direct access to physical therapists in all environments for patient/client management, prevention, and wellness services. Physical therapists will be practitioners of choice in patients’/clients’ health networks and will hold all privileges of autonomous practice.

What does this “Vision 2020” mean for you, the consumer of physical therapy? First, your Doctor of Physical Therapy will have at least seven years of schooling (four years undergraduate and three years in doctoral school).  This increased education will better prepare our future professionals in the ever-changing and unpredictable future of clinical physical therapy practice.  Direct Access will become the norm rather than the exception. Patients will be able to go straight to their physical therapist for their muscle/joint problems, rather than having to see their physician first.  As a result, D.P.T.’s will be more involved in the evaluation, diagnosis, and management of their patients.  Finally, the education of patients and their families regarding treatment will assume more and more importance.

All of these ever-increasing professional demands will necessitate an increase in the expertise of physical therapy evaluation and treatment.  Historically popular physical therapy treatments such as heat, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and massage will be de-emphasized (sorry, a good rubdown is not good physical therapy, and ice/heat can be done at home), as the research shows that these are not effective interventions for the management of musculoskeletal disorders. In other words, they may feel good, but will likely not fix your bad shoulder/back/knee. Your Doctor of Physical Therapy will be the musculoskeletal expert, and will be able to effectively diagnose and treat your muscle or joint problem.  More effective treatment strategies backed up by sound research and evidence will be emphasized.  A stronger emphasis will be placed on therapeutic exercise (the use of stretching/strengthening exercises to restore functional range of motion and strength) and manual therapy (your Doctor of Physical Therapy using his/her hands to manually move your joints to restore normal range of motion), as these two physical therapy interventions have strong evidence to back up their effectiveness.  In other words, these interventions will be much more likely to fix your bad shoulder/back/knee.

In the end, the question and answer may be much simpler than we thought.  My name is Dr. Parley Anderson, and I am a Doctor of Physical Therapy…and my Name is Nicole Nelson, and I will be a future Doctor of Physical Therapy.  We are musculoskeletal experts that utilize therapeutic exercise and manual therapy to “fix” your muscle and joint problems.

*Nicole Nelson is a first year D.P.T. student at Touro University in Henderson, Nv.  She graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2008 with degrees in Biology and Computer Science.

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  1. Anonymous Reply

    I think that it can help me in making the choice of a skilled doctor from whom I can get my shoulder and back pain be treated. I believe choosing an authentic physical therapist is very important for pain relief.

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