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PT, DPT: What Do The Letters Mean?

Many patients ask what it took for me to become a PT, and most are surprised to learn that it requires a doctorate level degree. Here’s what’s behind the title “Physical Therapist.”

The “PT” in a therapist’s credentials mean that they are an actively licensed PT. After passing the national board exam, PTs are licensed to practice in that state, and renew that license every 2 years. Like all providers, PT’s must complete continuing education credits (via courses, teaching, attending conferences etc.) in order to keep their license current. They can hold licenses in multiple states or join a multi-state compact. On that note, you cannot seek care from any provider virtually if they don’t hold a license or compact privilege in your state.

The “DPT” stands for Doctor of Physical Therapy, the degree earned by PT’s. It is a clinical doctorate (like MD, PA) limited to one profession, versus an academic degree like a PhD. Physical therapists’ education trains them to be generalists; they are equipped to work in any setting including orthopedics, neuro, pediatrics, and geriatrics, from inpatient in the ICU, to outpatient sports rehab. There are residencies (similar to MD training) and fellowships that allow a PT to be more specialized, but most PT’s develop their specialty based on experience in one area, further training, and certifications after their degree.

The “DPT” part is important for a few reasons, and it represents how the PT profession has advanced in the last 20 years. Physical therapists once held bachelor’s degrees in their field, which progressed to a master’s degree (you may still see MPT’s in the clinic). However in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, education programs transitioned to doctorate degrees. By 2016, the only accredited schools were Doctor of Physical Therapy programs.

Without going into extensive detail about this transition, here’s why it matters:

The doctorate level education means that PT’s are equipped to practice autonomously, or independently, and they don’t rely on diagnoses or instructions from other providers in order to treat patients. The physical therapist is in charge of determining the plan of care for each patient. The in-depth education also means PT’s are able to diagnose (if the diagnosis is within their scope of practice).

The higher degree means more responsibility. Many patients have not been examined by a doctor or other specialist before seeing PT, and in many cases PTs are the primary provider when it comes to musculoskeletal conditions. If you sprain your ankle or throw out your back, you can walk (or hobble) into a PT clinic the next day without waiting to see your doctor (who will often refer you to PT). Physical therapists study pharmacology, medical conditions, and differential diagnoses to rule out red flags and understand the full medical picture when seeing a patient. Therapists should recognize when it’s necessary to refer a patient to a physician or recommend imaging, or in rare cases, when to send someone to the emergency room.

All states have some level of direct access for PT, which means you do not need a referral from a doctor to see a PT. Certain states have restrictions, and you may have to check with your specific insurance company if you want insurance to pay. However, many PT clinics (especially self-pay clinics) see patients through direct access, when patients choose PT first without a referral.

You may see other letters after your therapist's name including OCS, CSCS, COMPT. These are additional specialty certifications the therapist completed. (The examples above are: Orthopaedic Certified Specialist, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Certified Orthopedic Manual Therapist).

To find out where your state falls on direct access, see the link below:

Questions about what physical therapists do or know? Ask me!

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