Physical therapy is a vital treatment for individuals who have suffered an injury, illness or surgery. These patients rely on skilled physical therapists to help them regain their strength and mobility. But how are these therapists trained? Do they go through medical school like doctors?
The education of physical therapists is a strict process that involves both academic and clinical training. It is important to note that they do not attend medical school in the traditional sense. Instead, physical therapists undertake a different path of learning.
To become licensed as a practicing physical therapist, one must first complete a Bachelor’s degree, preferably in a science-related field such as anatomy, biology or physiology. The next step is to enroll in an accredited Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. This doctoral program generally takes 3 years to complete and includes extensive clinical rotations where students gain hands-on experience under the guidance of experienced physical therapists.
After graduation from the DPT program, candidates need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). Upon passing this exam, graduates can officially become licensed physical therapists and enter the workforce.
“The path towards becoming a physical therapist requires just as much dedication and hard work as any other medical profession. Their extensive knowledge of the musculoskeletal system and rehabilitation techniques play a critical role in recovery and pain management.”
The journey towards being a qualified physical therapist may be long, but it is worth noting that their contributions to healthcare are valuable. In a world of ever-evolving medicine, physical therapy remains an essential facet in improving the lives of people with injuries or disabilities.
Understanding the Educational Requirements for Physical Therapists
If you are considering a career in physical therapy, it is essential to understand the education and training requirements for this field. One of the most common questions asked by aspiring physical therapists is whether they need to attend medical school. In short, no, physical therapists do not go to medical school.
Undergraduate Coursework for Physical Therapy
The first step towards becoming a physical therapist is completing an undergraduate degree program. Most programs require coursework in biology, anatomy, physiology, physics, and psychology. Additionally, students must complete prerequisite courses such as statistics, English composition, and social sciences. It is also recommended that prospective physical therapy students gain experience working or volunteering in healthcare settings to better prepare them for the physical demands of the job.
“Physical therapists have extensive undergraduate and graduate level education in human anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and neuroscience,” says Angela O’Mara, Doctor of Physical Therapy at Texas Health Sports Medicine. “This helps them understand how the body moves and functions, so they can diagnose and treat a wide range of musculoskeletal conditions.”
Graduate Programs for Physical Therapy
After completing their undergraduate degree, students then apply to a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. These programs typically take three years to complete and focus on developing clinical skills through classroom instruction and hands-on clinical practice. Courses may include therapeutic exercise, rehabilitation techniques, pharmacology, and patient care management. Students will also participate in clinical rotations where they work with patients under the supervision of licensed physical therapists.
“During their DPT programs, students learn how to examine, evaluate and diagnose movement disorders using clinical reasoning derived from biomedical, psychological and social models of health,” notes Megan Slaker, Director of Admissions for the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of South Florida. “They also learn how to plan and administer safe, effective, and individualized interventions.”
It is important to note that physical therapy programs are highly competitive, with acceptance rates ranging from 10-20%. Students must have a strong academic background, as well as demonstrate clinical skills and experience in healthcare settings.
“Physical therapists help people who have injuries or disabilities improve their strength and movement,” says Joyce Gomes-Osman, PhD, PT, Assistant Professor at the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami. “Patients receive personalized care plans to achieve goals such as increasing mobility, reducing pain, and preventing future injury.”
While physical therapists do not attend medical school, they do undergo extensive education and training in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, neuroscience, and patient care management. This prepares them to diagnose and treat a wide range of musculoskeletal conditions.
The Difference Between Medical School and Physical Therapy Programs
There is often confusion about the differences between medical school and physical therapy programs. While both involve training for healthcare professionals, there are distinct differences in their curriculum and career paths.
Medical School Curriculum
Medical school typically takes four years to complete and emphasizes the study of human anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and pathology. In addition, students learn how to diagnose and treat illnesses, as well as how to practice preventative medicine.
During their first two years, medical students focus on classroom studies and simulations. They then spend another two years working under supervision in a clinical setting.
“The curriculum is very science-based. Classes such as microbiology, biochemistry, and immunology make up a significant portion of the coursework.” -Dr. John Halamka, Emergency Medicine Physician
Physical Therapy Curriculum
Physical therapy programs take three years to complete and focus on helping patients manage pain and recover from injuries or surgeries. Students learn techniques to improve mobility, strength, and flexibility through exercise and other therapies.
In their first year, physical therapy students primarily study science courses, including anatomy, biology, and kinesiology. During the following two years, they gain hands-on experience treating patients under clinical supervision.
“Physical therapy programs are designed to apply scientific principles with therapeutic interventions to help get people back to being functional.” -Michael Wong, PT, DPT, OCS
Despite these differences, some may wonder if physical therapists go to medical school.
The answer is no. Physical therapy programs do not require applicants to have a degree in medicine or attend medical school before enrolling in their program. Instead, they look for candidates who have completed a bachelor’s degree and prerequisites courses in sciences like biology, chemistry, and physics.
While there may be some overlap in the education of medical school and physical therapy programs, they serve different purposes. Doctors focus on diagnosing and treating a wide range of illnesses and injuries, while physical therapists specialize in rehabilitating patients through exercise and other non-invasive treatments. Both play an essential role in providing quality patient care.
What are the Benefits of Choosing Physical Therapy over Medical School?
Many students interested in healthcare careers may be wondering whether they need to pursue medical school, or if other options, such as physical therapy, could offer similar job opportunities with lower cost and less competitive admissions process. Here are some reasons why choosing physical therapy may be a better fit for you:
Lower Cost of Education
The reality is that medical school is expensive. A student pursuing a career in medicine can expect to pay upwards of $150,000 in tuition alone. In contrast, most Doctor of Physical Therapy programs charge between $10,000 – $30,000 per year in tuition fees.
This difference in cost has significant implications on one’s future earning potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for physical therapists in 2020 was about $91,010, with top earners making more than $124,740. This income level not only provides financial stability but also helps manage existing student loans while allowing graduates to live comfortably.
The relatively lower education cost and quick return on investment make physical therapy a great option for those seeking an affordable path to a fulfilling healthcare career.
More Direct Patient Interaction
One of the main attributes that distinguishes physical therapists from doctors is the extent of direct patient interaction they have. While many physicians spend little time directly caring for patients due to constantly increasing administrative demands, physical therapists typically work closely with their patients throughout their entire rehabilitation journey.
In addition to being involved in initial diagnosis and treatment planning, physical therapists provide ongoing guidance to patients on exercises and pain relief strategies. For patients whose conditions require long-term rehabilitation, having a personal guide like a physical therapist can offer immense support and help them achieve maximum recovery outcomes.
This close patient interaction also allows physical therapists to develop personal relationships with their patients, often driving greater job satisfaction and fulfillment.
Less Competitive Admissions Process
The medical school admissions process is notoriously competitive. Of the 53,371 applicants for MD programs in 2020-21, only a little over 22,000 ended up enrolling (source: Association of American Medical Colleges). This means more than half of the applicants see their dreams of becoming physicians dashed due to limited availability or lack of qualifications.
In contrast, pursuing physical therapy generally requires less stringent prerequisites and has lower competition among applicants. While Doctor of Physical Therapy program admission standards vary by institution, students generally must have completed anatomy and physiology courses, scored well on standardized tests such as GREs and have prior hands-on experience in an outpatient clinic setting – which can be obtained through PT technician roles or internship opportunities.
Maintaining high grades and test scores is still necessary but the bar may be set slightly lower for physical therapy studies when compared to pre-med tracks.
Greater Work-Life Balance
Burnout is not unique to medicine, but the profession does come with high levels of stress and responsibility, which can negatively impact work-life balance.
Physical therapy, on the other hand, generally offers greater flexibility and autonomy during work schedules. Though no healthcare career is stress-free, many physical therapists enjoy benefits like flexible hours and reduced administrative tasks that allow them to find better work-life balance without compromising salary or career growth potential.
“For me, having a life outside of work is really important,” says Lisa Weber, Group Director of Rehabilitation Services at Clinician’s Choice in New York City. “I love being able to go for a run or hit the gym after working hours, knowing I won’t be tethered to my physician pager.”
Physical therapy offers many benefits as a rewarding career path while having less competitive admissions requirements and offering greater flexibility in work-life balance.
The Role of Physical Therapists in Healthcare
Physical therapists (PTs) are healthcare professionals who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal problems. They help individuals of all ages recover from injuries or illnesses that affect their ability to move and function properly.
One common question is whether physical therapists go to medical school. Contrary to popular belief, PTs do not attend medical school. Instead, they earn a doctoral degree in physical therapy after completing an undergraduate degree program. This degree takes three years to complete and includes extensive clinical training in addition to classroom instruction. Graduates of these programs must pass a licensing exam before being eligible to practice as physical therapists.
While many people think of physical therapy as something that only benefits those recovering from injury or surgery, it actually plays an important role in preventative care. PTs can help identify areas of potential weakness or imbalance in the body, which left unaddressed could lead to injury down the road. By providing exercises and stretches specific to an individual’s needs, PTs can help keep the body strong and functioning at its best.
“As part of my treatment plan for ankle pain, my physical therapist gave me exercises to strengthen my core muscles. I had no idea how much this would improve my overall posture and prevent future issues.” -Rebecca P.
One of the primary roles of PTs is helping patients rehabilitate after injury or illness. For example, they may work with athletes recovering from a knee surgery or an older adult regaining strength following a stroke. Through targeted exercises and stretches, PTs tailor rehabilitation plans to meet each patient’s unique needs. With guidance and support from a PT, patients can regain their mobility, address any lingering pain, and generally improve their quality of life.
“After a car accident left me with back pain, I was referred to a physical therapist by my doctor. She helped me understand my condition better and worked with me to develop a treatment plan that would get me back to feeling like myself.” -John S.
Physical therapy can also be used as part of a comprehensive pain management plan. For patients experiencing chronic pain or discomfort, PTs work to identify the root cause of the problem. From there, they use targeted exercises and stretches to address any underlying musculoskeletal issues that may be contributing to the pain. In some cases, this approach can lead to significant improvements in pain levels without the need for medication or surgery.
“My physical therapist did more for my neck pain than any medication ever could. Through gentle movements and targeted exercises, she was able to help me reduce my reliance on painkillers.” -Maria R.
Collaboration with Other Healthcare Providers
PTs often work closely with other healthcare providers such as physicians, nurses, and occupational therapists. This collaboration ensures that patients receive comprehensive care that addresses all aspects of their health and well-being. By sharing information and expertise, these professionals can create individualized treatment plans that are both effective and efficient.
“As an occupational therapist, I frequently refer my patients to physical therapists when additional intervention is needed to improve mobility and function. We work together to ensure that each patient receives the best possible care.” -Jessica M., OTR/L
While physical therapists do not attend medical school, they play a critical role in the field of healthcare. From preventative care to rehabilitation services to pain management, PTs offer specialized care that helps individuals move and function at their best. By collaborating with other healthcare providers, they ensure that patients receive comprehensive and personalized care.
How Do Physical Therapists Collaborate with Medical Doctors?
Sharing Patient Information
Physical therapists are healthcare professionals who work closely with medical doctors to provide comprehensive care for patients. Sharing patient information is critical to ensure that both providers have a complete understanding of the patient’s health status, including their medical history and current treatment plan.
Physical therapists typically collaborate with medical doctors by providing detailed progress reports on each patient they treat. These reports include information on the patient’s mobility, strength, range of motion, pain level, and any other relevant factors impacting the patient’s recovery.
With this information, medical doctors can make informed decisions about the patient’s overall care, adjust their medications or treatments if necessary, and provide additional recommendations to help improve the patient’s quality of life.
Referrals Between Providers
Another way physical therapists collaborate with medical doctors is through referrals. In some cases, physical therapy may be incorporated as part of a larger treatment plan initiated by a medical doctor. Alternatively, a physical therapist may identify a condition that requires further medical intervention beyond the scope of physical therapy.
In these situations, physical therapists will work closely with physicians to assist with referrals. This may involve coordinating appointments with specialists or discussing various treatment options available for patients.
The goal of these referrals is to promote collaboration between providers and ensure that patients receive the most comprehensive and effective care possible. By working together, medical doctors and physical therapists can create a cohesive approach to managing a patient’s ongoing health needs while minimizing any potential gaps in care.
“Collaboration among healthcare professionals is critical to achieving improved patient outcomes and delivering high-quality care.” -American Physical Therapy Association
While physical therapists do not attend medical school like physicians, they still must complete extensive education and training to become licensed healthcare providers. Physical therapists typically require a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, which involves coursework in anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and other related fields.
Moreover, physical therapists must obtain licensure from their state’s licensing board before they can practice as a professional. These rigorous education requirements ensure that physical therapists have the knowledge and expertise necessary to provide effective care for patients across a wide range of conditions and injuries.
Collaboration between medical doctors and physical therapists is an essential aspect of providing comprehensive care for patients. By sharing patient information and coordinating referrals, these professionals can work together to optimize treatment plans and improve overall health outcomes. While physical therapists do not attend medical school, they still receive extensive education and training to provide high-quality care for their patients.
Exploring the Future of Physical Therapy Education and Practice
Advancements in Technology
The field of physical therapy has seen rapid progressions in technology that have impacted patient care. With the rise of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, physical therapists are now able to provide more accurate assessments and enhanced treatments for their patients.
According to Dr. Allan Besselink, a renowned physical therapist and top-level triathlon coach, “The integration of technology into physical therapy is very exciting. Not only does it increase precision when assessing injuries, but it allows PTs to better educate and engage with their patients.”
New wearable devices such as Fitbits can track activity levels, sleep patterns, heart rates, and even help monitor postoperative rehabilitation remotely. Innovative 3D printing techniques allow for personalized creation of orthotics, prosthetics, and corrective tools for specific individual needs. Telehealth solutions also make virtual therapy sessions possible, which provides increased access to healthcare resources to areas lacking physical therapists near them or individuals who may be homebound due to injury, disability, or transportation issues.
Increased Emphasis on Preventative Care
Gone are the days where physical therapy solely focused on treating ailments after they occur. Increasingly, preventative care has become an emphasis in the industry, allowing for deeper, longer-lasting results for patients by reducing the risk of future injuries.
A study published in The Journal of Applied Physiology cited that using exercises designed for functional fitness could reduce muscle imbalances and correct biomechanical dysfunction associated with chronic recurrent injuries. Patients no longer just seek relief from symptoms; they want tangible results and outcomes that accurately predict long-term success.
Allison M Rife, PT, DPT, Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Orthopedic Physical Therapy (OCS), explains that “The better we get at solving problems, the more we can prevent them from returning in the first place. By taking a proactive approach to physical therapy, we enable patients to lead happier, healthier lives.”
Expanding Scope of Practice
The role of physical therapists has broadened significantly over time, with expanded opportunities for specialization beyond acute care and outpatient services. PTs are now found working alongside medical professionals across various healthcare settings such as sports medicine clinics, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and nursing homes.
In recent years, legislation has advanced, allowing some states’ licensed physical therapists to have direct access to patients without the need for physician referrals or consultation. This allows for more individualized attention to each patient’s needs while helping to decrease overall healthcare costs through improved efficiency of care delivery.
Nancy Kirsch, a physical therapist based in Pennsylvania and current president of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), explains that “Direct access reduces barriers to entry and ultimately speeds up care delivery by reducing the burden placed on our already strained primary-care physicians.”
Growing Demand for Physical Therapists
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates continued job growth and projected physical therapist employment to grow by 18 percent between 2019-2029, much faster than average compared to other occupations.
This growing demand for physical therapists creates new opportunities for professionals entering the field, but it also highlights the need for advancements in physical therapy education. To keep pace with increased demand for qualified professionals in this rapidly changing industry, a renewed focus has been generated to provide valuable and comprehensive educational programs that best prepare students to meet these changing demands.
According to The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, accredited graduate-level doctoral programs are required to teach students Biology, Pathology, Exercise Physiology, Neuroscience, Orthopedics, Clinical Reasoning/Evidence-based Practice, Pharmacology, and Diagnostic Imaging. These rigorous programs provide students with the comprehensive training necessary to tackle today’s challenges in physical therapy.
Frequently Asked Questions
What education is required to become a physical therapist?
To become a physical therapist, you need to have a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. This typically requires completing a 3-year graduate program, after obtaining a bachelor’s degree. In addition to the academic requirements, you also need to complete clinical internships and pass a licensing exam to practice as a physical therapist.
Is medical school required to become a physical therapist?
No, medical school is not required to become a physical therapist. Physical therapy is a separate profession that focuses on helping people regain mobility and manage pain through non-invasive techniques. However, physical therapists do work closely with doctors and other healthcare providers to develop treatment plans for patients.
What is the difference between medical school and physical therapy school?
Medical school is focused on training doctors to diagnose and treat illnesses using medication, surgery, and other invasive procedures. Physical therapy school, on the other hand, trains students to help patients manage pain and improve mobility using exercise, manual therapy, and other non-invasive techniques. Physical therapists do not prescribe medication or perform surgery.
Can physical therapists prescribe medication?
No, physical therapists cannot prescribe medication. However, they do work closely with doctors and other healthcare providers to develop treatment plans for patients. Physical therapists may recommend over-the-counter pain relievers or refer patients to a doctor for prescription medication if necessary.
What is the typical salary range for physical therapists?
The median annual salary for physical therapists in the United States is around $90,000. The salary range varies depending on factors such as years of experience, location, and type of employer. Physical therapists who work in hospitals or outpatient clinics tend to earn higher salaries than those who work in schools or nursing homes.