By: Tom Walters, DPT, CSCS
What type of degree is required to become a licensed physical therapist? Do therapists graduate as generalists or can they specialize in a particular subject area during their professional education? These are questions I hear on a daily basis from patients and, at times, from other therapy professionals. I am not surprised by these questions, especially when one considers how dramatically the profession has changed in the last twenty years.
Physical Therapy Education:
The current standard in physical therapy education is the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree, which has replaced the Master’s degree and the Bachelor’s degree before that. Of the 219 physical therapy programs, only seven offer the Master’s degree with the remainder issuing a clinical doctorate upon completion. In order to be admitted to physical therapy school, a student must possess a Bachelor’s degree including numerous prerequisite courses, which can vary according to the graduate institution the student in applying to. A graduate program in physical therapy then consists of a three-year curriculum, which includes a combination of didactic and clinical work and culminates with the student sitting for the National Physical Therapy Exam to achieve licensure. Upon receiving licensure, the physical therapist can then use the designation PT for their license and DPT, MPT or BSPT depending on their degree type. Because the DPT is relatively new, only about 13% of the workforce currently holds this degree.
Residency & Fellowship:
Upon completing PT school, many graduates continue their education by enrolling in residency and fellowship programs related to a particular subject of interest. Residency programs last between nine and thirty six months and include the following areas of specialization: orthopaedics, neurology, pediatrics, geriatrics, women’s health, sports and cardiovascular and pulmonary. After finishing a residency, a therapist can then sit for board certification in their particular subject area. An individual who has received board certification can then label themselves as a board certified clinical specialist and include the following credentials after their name: orthopaedics (OCS), neurology (NCS), pediatrics (PCS), geriatrics (GCS), women’s health (WCS), sports (SCS), cardiovascular and pulmonary (CCS) and clinical electrophysiology (ECS).
Fellowships, like residency programs, contain both didactic and clinical work and last between nine and thirty six months are usually undertaken by individuals who have already achieved board certification or completed a residency and demonstrate clinical expertise in their particular practice area. The fellowship is designed to provide greater depth in a specialty area and can include one of the following topics: movement science, hand, orthopaedic and manual therapy and sports-division I athletics. Fellows may then use the fellowship credentials, which could include FAPTA (Fellow of the American Physical Therapy Association) or FAAOMPT (Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy).
In the end, if you are working with a fellow physical therapist and you are curious about their educational background, don’t hesitate to ask